The Diaby Debate: Not Good Enough or Underappreciated?

By on November 6, 2009

Abou DiabyToday, ArsenalStation and, regular guest contributor, Ted Harwood, discuss the merits, deficiencies, and perceptions of Abou Diaby. You are welcome to comment on your take on Abou Diaby.

ARSENALSTATION SAYS: I’ve had this debate about Diaby for 2 years now. While some feel that he has improved this season, others continue to find fault with him. Let me try to briefly point out what I think his problems on the pitch have been, while Ted will talk more about the perception of Diaby by the fans. Diaby simply has not looked an Arsenal-type player. Yes, he has the technical ability which Arsene insists on, but it is the other intangible qualities that he has lacked.

First, his vision is limited. How many times can you remember Diaby making a killer pass to set up a goal? Second, he has been selfish on the ball and this has been biggest downfall. The club’s style is built on passing and movement. However, when Diaby has been on the ball this breaks down often. He has insisted on taking on multiple defenders only to lose the ball and gives the ball away cheaply.

Abou Diaby For me, it is not a case of Diaby not helping the team; rather, I believe that when he has been on the pitch, he’s hurt the team. He disrupted our style of play and kept us from developing the kind of rhythm we need on the pitch to be at our most threatening.When Diaby was in the match, it has always looked like it was Arsenal + Abou Diaby. He never looked a part of the midfield, but rather like he had been thrown into the midfield. Like a new player in a pickup game, almost.

Another problem Diaby has had, and this might be the one which has hurt him the most over his entire career, is that he is not versatile enough. This is another quality we’ve come to expect from Arsenal players. However, he struggled when played wide, and yet, for years, he did not learn to defend or tackle properly. Worse yet, he seemed not to have much desire to do either. Had he worked on these glaring deficiencies over the last two years, he would’ve been in a position to challenge Song for the holding midfielder role.

Despite being played out wide on the left for long stretches of time in the last two years, he also couldn’t be bothered to learn to put in a decent cross. This, I believe, came from a certain hubris on his part. The same hubris which manifested itself every time he tried to dribble through multiple defenders. We all know that most Premier League players were head and shoulders above the competition when they were youths, and that they were the player who was so much better than the others that they could dribble around five defenders and score 5 goals in a match.

Diaby has seemed to still think he is in that kind of situation. It’s why he doesn’t work hard enough on the deficiencies in his game and also why he continues, for some reason, to think he can beat two or three Premier League defenders. Diaby is useful to have as a squad player, but I fear he will never be anything more for the Arsenal and, in a year or so, we may be forced to sell him while his “potential” will still be included in his transfer fee. But, even I must admit that over the last few weeks, Diaby has looked much improved over last season, but, it seems that according to many readers, it will take more than a month or two for him to overcome the characterization built up over years which I have described above.

TED HARWOOD SAYS: Perhaps no Arsenal player has quite so divided opinion over the past year or so than has Abou Diaby.  Some may say that Denilson causes similar debate, but he has mostly won everyone over at this point.  A couple of years ago, Phil Senderos was the subject of alternating scorn and praise, but his Italian adventure and his subsequent de facto demotion have mostly silenced the discussions.  For a long time, though this year in particular, Diaby has been mystifying to many Gooners, myself included.  It is at times almost as if he doesn’t exist; no matter how he tries, no matter the goals he scores, he is still the forgotten Arsenal player.

The stars have not always been kind to Diaby during his time at Arsenal.  He had only been featuring for the first team for five months when Dan Smith of Sunderland came in hard for a tackle and broke Diaby’s ankle.  After Diaby regained fitness, he struggled to find a place in the side, with Fabregas, Hleb, Flamini, and Julio Baptista holding down midfield places over the next year.Abou Diaby

His fortunes didn’t regain their form any faster.  Arsenal faced Chelsea in the 2008 Carling Cup final, and on a corner kick, Diaby tried to clear the ball.  His boot instead squarely met the chin of the diving John Terry.  Only some quick thinking from Arsenal physio Gary Lewin and good luck saved Terry’s life, but for a while, things did not look good, and Diaby was visibly and understandably shaken by the accident.

Nonetheless, he battled on.  A solid if unspectacular 2008-09 campaign saw him feature on the left or in the center for a total of 36 games in all competitions, notching four goals and two assists.  Diaby developed a reputation for being a hard worker and a hard tackler and seemed destined to become the physical, lanky midfielder that many thought Arsenal had missed since the sale of Vieira in 2005.  No matter how he tried, though, Diaby seemed only to grudgingly win the support of fans.

Why is this?  Why does a man who, if we are to believe Arsène Wenger, looks poised to be an anchor in the Arsenal midfield for a long time, a man who has a good shot with both feet, why does he come in for such reluctant praise and such abundant scorn?  These questions are not meant as a rhetorical defense of the player.  I ask because Abou Diaby simply mystifies me.

This may have something to do with his style of play.  Diaby is not a flair player; this fact contributes to his invisibility.  He is asked to hang back and make the unspectacular pass much of the time.  He looks slow on the field, but in reality is probably quite fast, due to his long strides.  He does not complain when things don’t go his way; instead, he looks very much like the shy boy in fourth grade who just smiles when teachers call on him or when his friends talk about him.

This season in particular acts as a microcosm for Diaby.  He has featured in almost all of Arsenal’s matches save for the Carling Cup ties and the opener against Everton.  His stats paint a picture of a good, solid Premier League-quality midfielder: he has completed a very good 85.2% of his passes, has passed more than almost anyone on the team, has created more chances for the team than anyone except for van Persie and Cesc, and has won more tackles than anyone except for Alex Song.  He has won 13 fouls.  He has conceded 16 fouls, though, which is also second only to Song.  He has scored three times, but in a pretty, well, unspectacular fashion.

The problem with Diaby, and the main reason he struggles for understanding and/or acceptance from Gooners, is that he is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and when he finds himself there, he almost always does the wrong thing.  I don’t think I need to go into detail about Old Trafford this summer, but the look on Diaby’s face after his massive mistake was about the same as it always is; a blank, sort of bewildered stare.

Abou Diaby It was the same when he kicked John Terry in the face; he was torn up inside, but looked almost as if he was used to the heavens frowning upon him.  He simply walked back to his starting position as Robin shouted encouragement in his ear.  There was no stamping, no hands on the head, no pained expression.  There was simply Abou, slowly trudging upfield as 75,000 Mancunians screamed derision.  I half expected the music from the Charlie Brown specials to begin playing on the Old Trafford tannoy.

Last weekend at Upton Park was another example.  Diaby tackled young Hines in a position merely yards outside of the box at a time when Arsenal were under only moderate pressure.  Of course, this does not excuse Mannone’s error on the ensuing kick, but Diaby once again found himself in the thick of Arsenal’s troubles.

It is hard to understand why Diaby’s errors loom larger than others’.  It is hard to understand why he does not get the plaudits when he scores.  He seems to move through the game like a shadow, clumsy and forlorn.  He wears the expression of a man who cannot quite understand what is happening.

On the other hand, though, it is easy to understand.  His mistakes loom large because they play out against a murky grey background.  All of the good things Diaby does are largely invisible on the television.  His positioning isn’t terrible or anything; his passing, as noted above, is great.  His tackling is decent enough.  But he does very little that is immediately positive (although those chances he creates aren’t being converted, either; he has zero assists this year, and only two last year).

As one can tell, Diaby causes dithering.  I cannot decide if he is solid or poor.  The problem is that he can’t be a holding midfielder because Arsenal cannot afford to have someone who makes the types of mistakes that Diaby does.  This suggests that he may be more suited for an attacking role, where his mistakes are neutralized, but he simply does not offer the inspiration that Arshavin, Nasri, or Rosicky can.

With the likes of Fran Merida, Craig Eastmond, Aaron Ramsey, and Jack Wilshere threatening for playing time, Diaby should be concerned.  He simply doesn’t inspire confidence right now.  As Gooners, we must support all of our players, and I for one  hope that Diaby finds a way to put it together and have a great year, because it will only help the side.  I want to see Diaby excel, because he is a Gunner.  I want to see him smile.  But for now, there goes Charlie Brown, head bowed, wondering why the ball keeps getting pulled away.