The most inescapable facet of Abou Diaby’s career at Arsenal has been the comparison with Patrick Vieira. A tall, gangly French central midfielder of African descent playing at Arsenal under Arsène Wenger; the likenesses were invariably going to be addressed.
In fairness, they are quite a bit alike on the pitch. Their physical similarities mean that their playing styles have many shared components – both stride around the pitch using their long legs to retain possession, and, when on his game, Diaby uses his strength to hold off opponents in the same way as the former Arsenal captain did time and again at Highbury.
But while Vieira was a disciplined distributor, Diaby is a midfielder who likes to get forward, and often emphasises this in interviews. Having been pigeon-holed by many as a defensive midfielder due to his physical attributes, despite preferring to attack, it’s understandable that his progress has been delayed – and not just by injury – as it’s taken time to perfect his role at Arsenal.
Both [Vieira and Diaby] stride around the pitch using their long legs to retain possession, and, when on his game, Diaby uses his strength to hold off opponents in the same way as the former Arsenal captain.
Another player who’s suffered a similar categorization is Yaya Toure. At Barcelona he was classified as a holding midfielder due to his strength and size – it was assumed that he would follow the many midfielders of African descent in being a defensive player, but he seemed reluctant to play in a disciplined role. When he came to Manchester City, he was given freedom to drive forward from midfield into advanced positions, which suited him perfectly.
Comparisons between Diaby and Toure, like those between the current Arsenal number 2 and Vieira, may be easy to make, but there’s certainly weight behind them. Both of them are skilful midfielders who swim against the tide of stereotypes, preferring to break forward in support of attackers than stay back and protect the defence.
One of the main differences has recently been that while Toure has been on top of his game for a while, Diaby has struggled so long for any semblance of form, mainly due to injuries – not just the physical consequences but the mental aspect. His confidence seemed drained during matches, and he looked unsure of himself.
When Diaby breaks forward from midfield, Cazorla can drift into wide areas as he loves to do, with Diaby occupying his position. Indeed, we saw this for Cazorla’s goal at Anfield.
Quite what clicked against Liverpool is unclear. It may be that he just needed games under his belt, or that alongside Arteta given license to get forward everything finally came together for him, but his performance had pundits showering him with praise. The role he played was similar to that of Toure at Man City – alongside a disciplined distributor in midfield, given license to go forward.
Funnily enough, Vieira would probably be Diaby’s perfect central midfield partner. Like Arteta at Anfield, he would sit deep while Diaby probed forwards with driving runs, dancing pirouettes and penetrative passing. We finally saw Diaby produce something close to his best after seemingly laying dormant for so long, and Arsène Wenger will have been pleased to see his persistence pay off.
Comparisons between Diaby and Toure may be easy to make, but there’s certainly weight behind them. Both of them are skilful midfielders who swim against the tide of stereotypes, preferring to break forward in support of attackers than stay back and protect the defence.
The comparison of Toure and Diaby isn’t exactly ground-breaking – the Arsenal midfielder made it himself after the game – but it certainly proves that Diaby can be a success after so long without a defined role. He seems to have found his calling, a role in which Toure so frequently excels for Manchester City, and one that should also help his new team-mate, Santi Cazorla. When Diaby breaks forward from midfield, Cazorla can drift into wide areas as he loves to do, with Diaby occupying his position. Indeed, we saw this for Cazorla’s goal at Anfield.
It will certainly give Arsenal unpredictability going forwards – rather than a rigid formation, the team will be free-flowing and fluid going forward. Last season it was similar, but the chaos that often broke down opposing teams also contributed to the Gunners’ own downfall; the lack of structure leading to a leaky defence.
Song was in Diaby’s box-to-box role, and Arteta’s function was slightly vague. This season it’s much clearer that he’s the disciplined holder and Diaby the one with license to get forward, and with more clarity Arsenal should benefit.
Wenger was widely derided for not buying a centre midfielder in the summer, especially after the sale of Song, but Diaby coming good against Liverpool seems to be vindicating him. Everyone knew of his talent, but the question was whether he could finally fulfil that potential. It was a risk to not strengthening centrally, but Diaby seems to have benefitted from the faith his manager put in him.
It took a while, but this may well prove to be another time where Arsène Wenger has the last laugh.
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