How Abou Diaby Is Became The Lynchpin Of Arsenal's Midfield
Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Following defeat in the North London Derby, it was clear that a change in tactics and personnel was required if this Arsenal team were going to stand any chance of achieving a top four finish. Gone are the complacent ‘keeper and overzealous centre half. In there place are a new-look, authoritative Lukasz Fabianski and a resurgent Laurent Koscielny. A more significant change, however, was the dispensation of the high line. Playing a high line is absolutely fine if you are able to effectively press and apply pressure on the ball high up the pitch, but Arsenal’s midfield failed to do this against Spurs, and consequently Sigurdsson and Parker were made to look like creative genii, which even the most ardent Spurs fan would have to concede that they most certainly are not. The flaws of Arsenal’s midfield further exposed a back five that in itself had many deficiencies.
The most significant change has not been one of personnel, but of the system. The flexible but loose system that Arsenal were playing between Walcott’s return to the starting XI and defeat on derby day has been shelved, in favour of the rigid formation that served them so well in August and September. This formation is a 4-2-1-3 in possession, but a pragmatic and secure 4-4-1-1 when defending. In the two games since the formation’s return, Arsenal have come away with two victories, scoring four goals while conceding none. Add this to the games against Sunderland, Stoke, Liverpool, Man City, and Montpellier, and it leaves Arsenal with a fairly tidy record of four wins, three draws, no defeats, with nine goals for and only three against. While Arsenal cannot afford as many draws in their run-in, the defensive solidity solves half of the problem that plagued the Gunners between October and February.
The personnel changes in the back five are well documented, but the change in the middle is just as significant. Jack Wilshere is a supremely talented footballer with massive potential. However, there are still aspects of his game that he needs to improve. Given Wilshere’s current skillset and the requirements of Arsenal’s formation, he is very much a square peg and there isn’t really a place for him in the starting XI. That withstanding, Arsenal won’t be using this tactic for 90 minutes in all of their remaining games, and Wilshere will certainly have a role to play, be it off the bench or from the start against a weak opponent who has neither the inclination nor capacity to play through Arsenal’s midfield, rendering two deep midfielders overly cautious and unnecessary, as was the case in the Blackburn game.
At his best, Diaby’s game is about quickly transitioning the play and leading the charge on the counter. He is something of an instinctive player. Give him time on the ball and he’ll overthink things and probably make a poor decision. If his offensive role is simplified and he is instructed to run at the opposition, gain territory, then play a simple, accurate pass to a more potent teammate, he will excel.
Whereas the best example of what Diaby offers offensively occurred at Anfield, the best examples of what he offers defensively occurred at the Stadium of Light and to a lesser extent at the Liberty Stadium on the weekend. For all Wilshere’s virtues, his exuberance leads him to charge off up the pitch, leaving Mikel Arteta and the back four badly exposed. Diaby is more disciplined with his positioning. He is a big reason why Arsenal escaped Sunderland with all three points and a clean sheet intact. Barring a five minute spell in Swansea in the first half where every single one of the Arsenal back seven looked uncomfortable, Diaby did a good job alongside Arteta and contributed to a defensive effort that restricted a usually exuberant Swansea side to just two shots on target. Swansea only managed to connect with two through balls and were either shepherded into wide areas, or restricted to speculative pot-shots from range. In short, Arsenal were able to effectively execute one of the facets of the ‘How to stop Arsenal blueprint.’
Despite his defensive work and its importance to the team and the victory, Diaby drew the ire of the Arsenal fans. Even Diaby’s biggest advocates have to admit that he is an incredibly frustrating player to watch. Against Swansea, he demonstrated flashes of brilliance and flashes of tactical pragmatism, reminding people why he is so rated by Wenger, Deschamps, Blanc, and Domenech. However, these flashes were punctuated by the typical brainless errors that have plagued the lanky Frenchman throughout his injury-ravaged career.
With Diaby, you have to acknowledge that you’re going to get both the good and the bad. This usually comes in a 70:30 split. However, the 30% of the bad often come in key areas, during key phases of the game, and for many, this completely negates the 70% of the good that he offers, and they dismiss his value to the team.
Diaby is an asset to this Arsenal squad when playing this safety first, counter-attacking style. There will be games the likes of Reading, Norwich and QPR who perhaps lack the capacity and inclination to play through you where Diaby would be somewhat redundant. Therefore, it would be safe to play a fundamentally imbalanced midfield in these fixtures, starting Wilshere alongside Arteta. Nevertheless, Diaby certainly has a bigger role to play in Arsenal’s run-in than many would think.
Although I’ve highlighted his worth to the team, Diaby’s shortcomings are plain to see. These deficiencies are as a result of his brain operating at a diminished capacity. It’s debatable whether this is down to a lack of footballing intelligence or merely ring rust. Offensively, Diaby is often ponderous on the ball and completely disengaged and lackadaisical off it, as demonstrated against Swansea by the amount of times he appeared to be ballwatching and failed to move five yards to get into a position whereby he offered a passing option for the man on the ball.
Diaby’s brain seems to require an uninterrupted run of games for it to warm up and operate at the requisite level for him to be a force. Unfortunately, Diaby’s body seldom allows him to put together a run of games. He’s had 37 injuries since Dan Smith shattered his ankle in 2006. As a result of Smith’s lunge, and a subsequent challenge by Bolton’s Paul Robinson, Diaby also has the added psychological barrier of fearing injury. This has caused him to shy out of a couple of 50-50 challenges and occasionally react petulantly to vigorous tackles, such as the one perpetrated by Joey Barton in the infamous game at Newcastle.
To summarize, Diaby has his flaws, but he also brings something to the table that nobody else at Arsenal currently does. There are some players at other clubs who are better equipped to carry out the job that Diaby has been tasked with at Arsenal, and Arsenal should strive to acquire one of these players, but as they can’t do that