In recent years, many bounding, bandy-legged midfielders of African descent have laboured under the weight of expectation that comes with being branded "the new Vieira." Playing for Arsenal, Abou Diaby is subject to this unfortunate comparison more than most.
Aside from the similarity of their telescopic limbs and loping stride, the playing styles of the two Frenchmen differ quite dramatically. While both are physical, all-action players, Diaby is more of a technically gifted, attacking influence than the former Arsenal captain and World Cup winner ever was.
Vieira was also a central figure, the driving force behind the Invincibles era and Arsene Wenger’s imperious, on-field lieutenant, whereas Diaby has always seemed strangely peripheral to events. Whether marginalised through injury, loss of form or confidence, he has failed to make a position his own during his six years in England.
Perhaps it would all have been different had he not suffered a broken leg in that end of season stramash at the Stadium of Light in 2006. The months out of action held back his development, were a crippling blow to Diaby’s self-belief and unfortunately proved to be just the first in a catalogue of serious knocks.
Throughout, Wenger remained steadfast in his commitment to Diaby. Back in September, it appeared that such faith was finally being repaid, as a commanding performance by the £2 million signing from Auxerre secured a relatively straightforward win over Liverpool.
More than the assertive tackles, penetrative passes and lung-busting runs, it was his ability to shimmy out of tight spaces that most impressed. Diaby’s performance that day was a telling glimpse of the player that Wenger had always believed he would become.
Typically, it didn’t last long.
Another setback arrived soon after, continuing the fitful nature of his career thus far. In his absence, the leading pack drifted out of reach and Arsenal became overly reliant on a midfield three of Wilshere and the two Spaniards. With Arteta now ruled out for three weeks and Cazorla misfiring, Diaby’s return couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.
Being pressed into duty against Manchester City on Sunday was never going to showcase his abilities in the most flattering light—particularly not after an early red card that skewed the game in the visitors' favour—but just having him on the pitch again was a welcome boost.
His ideal blend of power and poise should help Arsenal kick on in the new year. Wilshere will most likely fill the gap vacated by Arteta, operating as a deep-lying distributor, enabling Diaby to be the dynamic link man. This will arguably be a better-balanced trio, as well as lifting the creative burden that has been carried almost solely by Cazorla in recent times.
Six points behind near neighbours Tottenham, and with a game in hand, a late charge for the top four and their customary Champions League berth is still on for Arsenal. At 26, Diaby is now a senior figure but with time on his side. Taking responsibility for helping to turn their season around could well be the making of him.