‘He headed a comical own-goal winner at Old Trafford… but at least he kicked John Terry in the head’: far be it from me to demur from the general mood of sorrow and regret at Abou Diaby’s departure from the club, after 16 minutes of league play in the last two seasons and participating a total of 24% of the club’s football during his time at Arsenal. Unquestionably this was a player of genuine talent, with a range of gifts both physical and technical that could in theory have seen him emerge as a beast of a midfielder with a career to match the very best.
Diaby’s true potential and quality is difficult to assess given the time he spent on the treatment table – over a third of his Arsenal career, with 40 injuries and two periods of illness. What grates is more the tendency, in the understandable collective desire to wish Diaby well in his quest for some degree of fitness and success, to go overboard in the grand view of what might have been and gloss over the reality of his time here, which was rather more prosaic and more often than not flattered to deceive.
With his range of passing and physical presence, complemented by accomplished finishing, Diaby certainly had the attributes to excel in central midfield. Yet a feature of his Arsenal career was his failure to nail down a clear role – it is hard to say whether he or the manager saw him as a complete central midfielder, a defensive midfielder, a playmaker, whether central or wide, or even a winger, given that these were all positions he was asked to take on at some stage.
I would suggest that there is a reason why he never found his role – he was not entirely suited to any of them and rarely if ever truly excelled in any single one of them. There is much talk of and reference to his outstanding display at Anfield in September 2012 when he ran the game from central midfield and provided the platform for an improbable-seeming comfortable 2-0 win – but there’s a reason for this: it’s well-nigh impossible to name any other such performances.
Sure, I can think for example of a routine victory at home to Portsmouth when Diaby scored a brace and bossed the game, but the retrospective hype around the player demands a little more than relatively insignificant displays of quality against inferior opposition. For me at least it is more the disappointments that stay in the mind: the way he was shunted out wide in attacking midfield, as so many have been whom Wenger does not quite trust in the middle, never showed that he could fulfil the role of a defensive midfielder and when facing opposition such as Barcelona in the Champions League proved emblematic of just what was missing to separate us from Europe’s truly elite teams.
Also lingering unhappily in the memory are two catastrophic and entirely avoidable red cards, one in 2008 at Bolton for a horrendous lunge at Grétar Steinsson when the team were already trailing (this preceded an extraordinary comeback from the 10 men from 2-0 down to win 3-2), and another in a situation that could hardly have been more different, 4-0 up at Newcastle and cruising; I can well believe the combative Joey Barton may have said or done something to provoke being unceremoniously hurled to the ground, but as unlikely (and inexcusable from Arsenal’s point of view) as Newcastle’s epic comeback was, it was a less than well-chosen act that opened a chink of light for the opponent.
I find it instructive – or at least telling – to compare Diaby’s time here with that of another formerly exalted star in Andrei Arshavin, who these days seems to be remembered by fans more as a wasted talent whose application did not match his talent and whose career ultimately fizzled out: an extravantly gifted player too lazy to make the effort required in a team game. Undoubtedly Arshavin’s Arsenal career did indeed peter out, but his first half-season’s impact (after his signing as something of an emergency for a then club-record fee) was unforgettable: think of his performance and wonderful first goal at home to Blackburn, while his explosive four-goal salvo in the thrilling draw with Liverpool had to be his high-water mark as a Gunner. Ultimately it is a point of record that the Russian’s impact in those first months was such that even on a part-time basis he was second on our list for player of the season behind Van Persie, and he continued to supply an explosive spark in our attack for a season or two, albeit increasingly intermittently: at his best he was very, very good, as a joyful glance back at his highlights reel, capped off by other tremendous strikes at Old Trafford and Anfield, will confirm.
One of Arsène Wenger’s most controversial selectorial decisions in 2009 involves both players, which to this day remains to me one of the most inexplicable and surely misguided single choices in a game that I can remember. Arshavin was cup-tied in Europe following his arrival, yet despite his availability for domestic competitions Diaby was preferred to him for the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea, one of those games when Didier Drogba ultimately punished us after we had taken the lead. In a baffling selection Diaby played in the no.10 position while van Persie was pushed wide left, a position he always hated. With hindsight, and even at the time, the notion of saving Arshavin for the league game at Anfield – in which, having no realistic hope of the title, all we could do was spoil things for Liverpool and nudge the league towards Manchester (not an appealing prospect from my perspective at least) – made little sense, the more so given the Russian’s subsequent goalscoring heroics in that game. Given that this season fell in the middle of our nine-year trophy drought, it seems doubly sad now that we didn’t at least give ourselves the best chance of winning the one trophy we could, with a player in such explosive form.
Form and perceptions can change very quickly. It is difficult to say at what point a considered view can be taken on a player’s overall worth or contribution to a club, but with both players now departed (long gone in Arshavin’s case, and to all intents and purposes also with Diaby), it would seem that we now have the requisite distance to make a judgement. Both players in different ways flattered to deceive, yet to hear some voices on social media or elsewhere, Diaby was denied a glorious career by one nasty (evil, as some seem to think) tackle – as if all his problems could be traced to that one incident – in a view that sees him as a kind of Yaya Touré or Schweinsteiger manqué, even, to listen to some, a player who had the talent to surpass the careers of both and outdo Patrick Vieira into the bargain.
This is quite simply a distorted view of reality. It might be harsh to describe Diaby as a would-be complete central midfielder whose party piece sadly forever remained a tendency to hold on to the ball for too long before giving it away; but it’s closer to the truth than the claim that injuries alone prevented him being the world-class dominant midfielder he was supposed to be. Between 2007 and 2011 he made well over 100 appearances for the club, but as I’ve suggested, fans would struggle to find a single performance to compare to that assured Anfield display: the difference between good and great players is ultimately down to intelligence and decision-making, not technical attributes alone. Other players seen as symbolic of the limitations of our squad at the time – Denilson, Bendtner, Song – get a far harder rap, which is not always commensurate with the facts. With Arshavin an assessment is more straightforward, so totally did his career decline – whether to do with depression, lack of motivation and fitness or the allegation that Wenger never gave him the free role he needed; but as briefly and brightly as his star burned in his first year of us, at least it did burn. We did, at his best, see the player who won the UEFA Cup with Zenit St Petersburg and made a fool of Holland at Euro 2008.
With Diaby, as we wish him well at Marseille, I’d prefer to avoid the kind of mindset that might at best be characterized as an understandable and charitable desire to give the best possible spin on the career of a desperately unfortunate professional, at worst as a rather unnerving form of revisionist groupthink. These days, it’s been observed that fans are forever having to take sides (Szczęsny or Ospina?), to reveal something, ideally positive, about themselves through their own preferences. Whether or not these shifting and often misleading perceptions are worth getting exercised about, let’s take some comfort from the fact that with players of the calibre of Özil, Sánchez and Cazorla in our team we are, hopefully, at last in a position to have fewer two-bald-men-fighting-over-a-comb debates than was the case a few years ago, when their roles were assumed by lesser footballers.