Arsenal have been questioned about the extraordinarily high number of injuries they have had over the years and that injury list seemed to have Abou Diaby’s name pinned to it. Karthik Ramakrishnan throws light on the Frenchman’s time at the London club and questions how far he can stretch Arsene Wenger’s faith.
Abou Diaby is 28 years old. A lanky French midfielder, he joined Premier League club Arsenal in January 2006. Touted to be good buy for the future, many great things were expected of the young Frenchman. It has been nine years since that day, and Diaby has made all but 129 appearances for the club.
Diaby is a box-to-box midfielder, who has the aptitude for defending and the flair to go quickly on an attack. Despite his rather large frame, his play has been characterized by nimble and subtle movements; he can shimmy past players, give good runs. He can effectively hold the ball, conserve possession for his side. Once that is done, he can play perfect release balls. His vision is quite exceptional, as also his passing accuracy.
When he joined Arsenal- a club that had a chequered history of being a host to many talented French national players- Diaby drew comparisons to Arsenal captain and legend, another tall and imposing Frenchman, Patrick Vieira. He was also touted to be the most ideal replacement for the departing Frenchman. Aged only 20 then, things seemed extremely rosy for the young man.
Fast forward nine years, Diaby has had it tough, to say the least. His Arsenal career has been tempestuous and turbulent. Form constraints, attitude problems and the like seem to have taken a dislike to Diaby. But another irritating entity has held him captive for many years: injuries. His body has proved to be frail and fragile as it has succumbed to many an injury over the years. 36 to be precise; THIRTY SIX injuries for him during his Arsenal tenure has seen him stay perpetually on the nursing bed, unfortunately.
Diaby marked his hundredth appearance for the North London club with two goals. The second goal finished off a typically dominating Arsenal move. As the sun shone on Diaby’s face, the scene did not speak of that fact that that would indeed be a false dawn- yet another false dawn.
The world of football has had an escalating journey off late. Qualities like trust, loyalty and the like have become rather outdated. Players and managers alike have only a bare minimum time frame to prove themselves; if they fail, they are put out in the cold. This is something prevalent in many leagues, in many countries. Time has deserted the game and money has abducted it.
In that context, Diaby has been incredibly lucky to have found himself under Arsene Wenger’s watchful eyes. At no other club would he have found such a patient manager, always at the ready to wait out yet another injury setback to see if the young prospect would move on from being a ‘prospect’ and a ‘talent’ and properly establish himself. Wenger has proved time and time again that football rests with the youth, as his patience and perseverance with his players has conjured up some tantalizing results. (One telling, forceful case is that of Aaron Ramsey’s.)
In the ending stages of 2014, Wenger commented that he would be ready to give Diaby a contract extension should he prove his fitness: that is the biggest catch of all. Wenger has an uneasily tough decision on his hands, which it seems he will take in the near future. Clubs funds are no laughing matter, and the continued resources being spent on Diaby could have well been raising many an eyebrow with each new injury. From a team perspective, Arsenal seem to have a good find in a rejuvenated Francis Coquelin. But having Diaby too back in the fray, having a fit again Diaby back in the team picture, would do the entire team a world of good. Wenger indeed, has yet another tough decision awaiting his treatment.
His unstoppable flirtation with injury has prevented him from donning the national colours as well, as he has made just 16 appearances sprinkled over the period from 2007 to 2012.
Wenger once said that “Diaby is not injury-prone, but is victim of a bad tackle”. Not many take in Wenger’s words seriously. But it would be mighty erroneous to just pass this on. Diaby, having been at the bad end of many a thoughtless tackle, has had his physical and mental constitution reframed and reworked more times than one can begin to count.
Taking a look at the number of times he has played for Arsenal, season by season, highlights his sparse appearances on the football field. He made 13 appearances for Arsenal in his first season at the club. He had a solitary goal to his name then. Going a bit better than that, he made 18 appearances in the next season. He had one goal and one assist to his name. In the 2008-09 season, when he made 25 appearances, scoring four goals and assisting two others. The 2009-10 season was his best by some way, when he scored seven goals and assisted five, while making 34 appearances. He made 23 appearances in the next season, but made just one in the 2011-12 season. He played all but 14 games in the 2012-13 season, and has since then made just two appearances in an Arsenal shirt.
For Diaby, who reportedly is not fit to take to the training ground even, time and luck have never been allies. In the race to prove himself fit to the manager who has trusted him so long, it would be interesting to see on which side the player emerges.
Abou Diaby is one player who has found himself to be written off by many a number. Short on fitness, short on match practise, well short of reaching his full potential, trust in the player seems to be unwarranted. But for a few, like the club and the manager, the man is still worth trusting and spending resources on. If Diaby rises above these seemingly never-ending troubles, it would the perfect vindication for all that trust.
Only 28 now, one cannot put it past him to make a return. After all, when fit, Diaby is a dominating, intimidating midfielder, who can ably control his team’s play. If only he was fit…
Tomas Rosicky has also had an injury ravaged Arsenal career. Thanks to Wenger’s trust, that was in large part enhanced and nurtured due to the undying, addictive footballing attitude of the Czech international, Rosicky has put those injury horror phases behind him and has returned to play many a memorable outing with the first team. That he is still in the picture for Arsenal speaks volumes of the player and the manager. Diaby could yet make a return to his playing days, but needs more than a pinch of luck.
Aaron Ramsey had to endure a career threatening tackle against Stoke, followed by an extremely long layoff. But he did come back into the reckoning, and produced a sustained season of brilliance last term. It was a combination of hard work, perseverance and trust from the manager. Diaby could well be another Ramsey-esque story, if only he was fit…
Arsenal fans must be frustrated with this career trajectory. If only he had not been ravaged by injuries, he would have made sure that Vieira’s absence would not have been missed so much, and missed still. Over the years, Arsenal have been found wanting because of a dominating, all-pervading midfielder at the centre of the field. Having that player would have effectively completed the Arsenal sides and would have accentuated their pursuit of greater glory. It is indeed sadly ironic then that even though they do have such a player in their arsenal, they are simply unable to field him.
Imagining the frustration and fury of the player is an attempt in futility. So many injuries, so many false starts; it must hurt, well and truly, that he has been unable to play up to his billing. It must hurt that he cannot extend the form that he showcases in the bits and pieces that his frail health allows him to. It must hurt that he cannot wear the Arsenal shirt.
What is painful is when his good performances are looked at again. Those deft touches, those slick passes, those goals, those calm runs: they were all for what?
The ability to pick out the right pass, irrespective of the location of the target; the innate instinct to make a run that freezes the opposition defense; the calm demeanour to rise up and above the opposition attack and calmly recollect the ball; all these and more, define Abou Diaby, the fit player, and these come of a natural source. It is a pity that a natural of Diaby’s calibre has had to be a perpetual prey to the narcissistic calls of injury.
When a player returns from injury, he has been on the back of intense rehabilitation of both the body and the mind. When he takes the field again, there will be this minor hesitation present subconsciously in his mind and his muscles, whenever he goes in for a shot or a tackle: “what if I get injured again?”
That fear can be destructive. It can multiply and metastasize and can make the player buckle and bow down to the pressures of the game. His ‘A’ game could forever get hidden behind the gory abyss created by such fear and apprehension. Warped by such fear, the player could find himself always a mere shadow of his former self.
Injuries thus are cruel and vindictive. An injury to a player can cause a psychological wound apart from the physical one. All is up to the player to brush off the psychological scratches in order to get back into the game.
Thirty six injuries is an unimaginable amount for any player. Even at Arsenal- that seems to have a bad spell cast over it in the recent past, for it has attracted a steady number of injuries to its players- Diaby’s injury count has been unable to take in. He has strained his calf muscle a grand total of ten times. His ankle has taken a beating eight times. Thigh muscle strains and hamstring problems have also not been generous enough to leave him alone. A body can only take in so much.
Diaby has had the mickey taken out of him on many an occasion, for failing to be fit enough to actually play some football. Opposition fans have found Diaby to be of easy fodder for their ‘jokes’. One only needs to slightly lift the veil to see Diaby’s true struggle.
For a player who has had to battle as many injuries as he has, the psychological damage must be substantial. If he gets physically fit, would he be mentally fit to take on the field? Would he be able to make a run across the opposing half, with defenders tailing, without fearing for his body? Would he be able to go in for a challenge, without hesitating a bit about his injury history? Would that not be on his mind? That every time he perseveres and makes a tough comeback, he is somehow sent back to the medical realms must be running in his mind throughout. Could he get past these constraints and make it as a professional footballer?
It is sad. Diaby’s story is sad. Such a colossal talent but yet to be realized. Many Arsenal fans must be behind him, hoping against hope that some luck would shine on him. Wenger must be biting his nails and thinking that on the outside chance that something good happens to Diaby, it should happen soon. Pretty surely, not many a football fan would be hoping against Diaby’s return. His story has been such.
Whatever may be the case, whatever may happen to Diaby’s Arsenal career, his talent is undeniable. His talent has never been in question. That his undeniable talent has unfortunately not been able to achieve its potential, even after so long, is indefatigable.
Written by Karthik Ramakrishnan
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