Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Tuesday May 25 2010
You may or may not recall that last summer I produced a three part series of articles entitled It`s Going To Be A Big Season For…. Focussing on three players in particular for whom the 2009-10 season represented a huge opportunity to plant their flags firmly into the Arsenal turf. The first player I exuded focus on was Abou Diaby. Diaby is a player who frustrates Arsenal fans like no player I have ever witnessed. In the linked article above last season I explicated that the reason for that frustration is the fact that we all recognise how talented he is. Amongst my suppositions that he was "Too offensive to play defensive midfield, too careless in possession to play attacking midfield, too idle to play on the left wing, too ugly to join a boy band" was the ultimate conclusion that, "Abou Diaby is football`s answer to the wasp, the occasional sting in the tail all too often preceded by an eternity of buzzing around aimlessly and annoying the living **** out of you." So, what of Diaby in 2009-10? Has he found the elusive mistress consistency? Both of form and fitness?
Well, as ever with Abou Diaby there really isn`t a straight answer. The birth of the 4-3-3 seemed to be Diaby`s big chance in a formation where, as an "in-betweener" in the midfield three, he would be asked to neither predominantly attack nor predominantly defend. However, early in the season, despite contributing healthily to Arsenal`s free scoring form prior to the injury to van Persie, however, he appeared to forget his place in the triumvirate- often marauding forwards to support the three attackers when that function was primed for one Senor Fabregas. Denilson`s long term back injury sustained in the September defeat at Eastlands presented him a chance to cement his place alongside Song as one of Arsenal`s midfield minders- yet it turned out that by not being asked to dedicate his talents to the sole purpose of offense or defence, Diaby thought he would just idiosyncratically attack at will. He was one of Arsenal`s more culpable players when the Gunners complacency allowed West Ham to claw back a 2 goal deficit at Upton Park. One week later, with Arsenal leading Spurs 2-0 at home, Diaby, unperturbed by the traumas of the week before, continued to maraud forwards like a dog with two dicks, culminating in the quasi legendary sight of Wenger screaming at him and throwing his jacket down in frustration.
That act of conniption appeared to represent a watershed. After being left to feast on scores of lovely carrots by the manager, Arsene very publicly gave him the old fork in the eye. From there on, Diaby was a player transformed. Defensive discipline, good ball retention, he stayed on his feet as opposed to diving into tackles. In the winter, Diaby was looking to be the player Arsene Wenger could see on the training pitch. In a tough, nip and tuck match at Turf Moor in December, Diaby was Arsenal`s warrior, hunting down the opposition when they were in possession, releasing the ball intelligently to attacking players before maintaining his position. His milieu of skills were being allied with signs of a brain for the first time in living memory. Perhaps his best individual performance of the season arrived just a few weeks later when Aston Villa came to the Grove. With Cesc only fit enough for the bench, Diaby was charged with taking control of the middle of the park, a challenge he rose to consummately with a dominant performance. But what was most impressive was that when Fabregas was called from the bench to win the game (natch), Diaby was asked to drop back and play a more defensive role- which he did seamlessly. Fabregas` came was of course ended by an injury recurrence, so when he came off again, Diaby was again asked to be the station master. He responded with a superb solo goal of his own. What magical universe is this where Abou Diaby shapes and moulds his role according to the needs of the team at a particular time?
His new found form of course was aided by two important components. Firstly, that he had a run in the team in his favoured position of central midfield- something that had never happened before in his Arsenal career. That component of course was contingent to the fact that he actually stayed fit for a prolonged period- another scarce occurrence of his Arsenal career to date. By the time Denilson returned from injury in January, Diaby had done enough to merit his place ahead of the Brazilian. In Alex Song`s absence due to the African Nations, the defensive duty fell even heavier on Diaby`s shoulders and for most of the month, he was assigned the role of anchor man and again, he performed the role satisfactorily. It was suddenly clear as to why Wenger had earmarked him for the position in the summer of 2007, when Gilbert was at the Copa America. A delightful headed winning goal against Liverpool in February appeared to confirm Diaby`s stock was on the up and up and that he had carved himself a firm place in the starting line up.
But thereafter, Diaby appeared to hit a bit of a lull. As Arsenal`s title credentials turned from wet cement to concrete, Diaby appeared to become a more listless presence, wading in with a series of fair to middling performances. Once the title chance receded to once more and the season drew to its close, Diaby went from unimpressive to pretty diabolical. His abject display at the JJB was probably the worst and most complacent of a poor and jolly arrogant bunch. His idle amble towards his own penalty area to "mark" Ben Watson was possibly one of the most distressing sights of the season as the Latics were allowed back into the game with a morale boosting goal. Diaby became the picture of apathy as the season petered out into a mind numbing patter. Having won his spot in the team, with little to play for and with the manager`s jacket throwing antics now a distant memory, Diaby lapsed back into the idle, thoughtless player we had this time last year. It leaves me with the conclusion that Diaby is a player who needs the constant presence of the stick to perform. When he has something to prove and something to play for, he is a quality addition to our team and a much needed physical presence. But once he has reached a certain ceiling, he appears to again drift back into lazy habits. Diaby can be a fine player, he can be disciplined and he can stay fit, he has proved all of these things this season. Yet I am left asking myself the question, does a champion need his manager to throw garments around to make him play? Does a champion pick and choose which games he contests and which he strolls through? Truth be told, despite his talent, I think I am about 95% of the way to giving up on the idea that Diaby can be a successful Arsenal player in the long term. Yet there`s still juts that lingering 5% on me……LD.
Date:Tuesday May 25 2010
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