The Return Of Diaby: Powering Through Midfield
The first round of World Cup qualifiers got underway yesterday with a number of Gunners featuring for their national teams.
Podolski’s Germany and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s England posted comfortable wins while Vermaelen’s Belgium put two past Ramsey’s Wales and Djourou’s Switzerland overcame Slovenia by the same score. Elsewhere, Cazorla continued to show his Arsenal form for country, scoring the first and assisting the second as hosts Spain thrashed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in a friendly in Pontevedra.
And over in Helsinki, Abou Diaby’s first half goal secured France three points against Finland. The words caution and Diaby are almost synonymous with each other but after years of suffering it does seem the 26-year old is finally on the cusp of converting all that potential into meaningful contributions on the pitch.
Back in August 2009 at the start of a new season, Arsene Wenger praised an impressive performance by his compatriot in a 4-1 victory over Portsmouth. In that game, Arsenal fielded a midfield trio of Fabregas, Diaby and Denilson. Denilson played in the deeper role and controlled possession while Fabregas played furthest forward and Diaby acted as the bridge. He often carried the ball forward, linked up with the wide men and made runs into the box looking for the final pass.
The ball-winning ability of the Frenchman in a deeper midfield role reminded Wenger of Patrick Vieira but the manager thought Abou’s real strength was in his swift transitions. Blessed with quick feet and fantastic dribbling skills, Arsene felt Diaby was extremely dangerous on counter attacks. Diaby himself feels he’s a more technical player, someone with a much more attacking intent than Vieira.
In that respect, comparisons with another midfielder of African origin playing with Manchester City are more valid. However, instead of being the new Yaya Toure I would suggest Abou Diaby is the original – the Frenchman was already showing his qualities at Arsenal when Toure was still cast in the holding midfield mould at Barcelona.
Returning to that game three years ago and comparing it with today’s Arsenal, there are plenty of similarities. Then it was Denilson who was charged with breaking play up and acting as the distributor, today it is Mikel Arteta. Then it was Cesc Fabregas who was the focal point of the team’s attacking play, today it is Santi Cazorla. Then it was Abou Diaby playing in the space between the deep-lying distributor and the sublime playmaker, winning the ball back on the halfway line and launching lightening quick counter attacks, and so it is today.
Arguably, Arsenal’s midfield is stronger now than three years ago. Arteta is the player Denilson was supposed to develop into, Cazorla is not only the team’s creative fulcrum but also brings a two-footed goal threat while Diaby is older wiser and hopefully stronger both physically and mentally. That memorable Portsmouth game was immediately followed by a bizarre own-goal at Old Trafford that gifted three points to the home team. Diaby’s performances in the first three games this season suggests such inconsistencies are a thing of the past.
The difference from 2009 to 2012 is in Arsenal’s options up front although similarities do exist. In August 2009, the club sold Emmanuel Adebayor to Manchester City for £25m while August 2012 saw Robin van Persie depart for Manchester United for £22m.
But the footballing qualities of Arsenal’s attacking men could not be more different now than three years ago. While we had the likes of Eduardo, Arshavin, Nasri and Bendtner playing in forward areas then, today it’s Giroud, Podolski, Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. When on song, the class of 2009 was a potent attacking force but when the gears did not click into place Arsenal suffered from a lack of defensive shape and work rate off the ball.
With Giroud, the Ox and particularly Podolski willing to get behind the ball and help out in defense, the present day forward line may not be as lethal (yet) as that of 09-10 but they will certainly contribute in making the Gunners difficult to beat. That quality, especially in wide areas, will help Abou Diaby punish the opposition every time the ball gets turned over.
Diaby’s resurgence is surely the primary reason Arsene Wenger let Alex Song go so readily. When fit, Diaby will be the first name on the team sheet and with Arteta’s experience and Cazorla’s creativity crucial in midfield, Alex Song would have found himself increasingly consigned to the bench.
There’s certainly a lot riding on Diaby’s fitness, even if Jack Wilshere looks close to marking a return as well. After more than a year out, Jack will need time to regain form and confidence. In the meantime, as Cazorla hogs the headlines with eye-catching displays, Abou Diaby will continue to be Arsenal’s powerhouse and driving force in midfield.
In the past four seasons 2009-10 was the closest Arsenal came to mounting a serious challenge for the title. Coincidently, it was also the season Abou Diaby made most appearances (40) for the Gunners. Back then, our campaign faltered in April after setbacks against Spurs and Wigan. Come April 2013, Abou Diaby will be hoping to make up for lost time and missed chances.