Abou Diaby: Arsenal and Arsene Wenger's Most Elusive Talent

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Abou Diaby: Arsenal and Arsene Wenger's Most Elusive Talent
Jan Kruger/Getty Images
Abou Diaby making a rare appearance for Arsenal, against Swansea City.

With Abou Diaby returning to the Arsenal bench for Sunday's 1-0 home victory over West Bromwich Albion, the return of a frustratingly injury-prone player represents perhaps the most elusive talent of Arsene Wenger's reign at the North London club.

The joy and—frankly—surprise afforded to the inclusion of the Frenchman to the matchday squad for the first time in an astonishing 13 months is indicative of his importance to the Arsenal side when fit.

His qualities fill a genuine void in the Gunners' midfield which Wenger has failed to replace since the sale of Patrick Vieira to Juventus in 2005.

Although he didn't feature at the Emirates on Sunday, Diaby expressed his delight at his successful rehabilitation, as per Patrick Haond of Sky Sports:

I would have loved to play 10 minutes this weekend. I was counting substitutions: one, two, and three. There was big desire. I am ready. Anyway I am already happy to have reached this point.

If Diaby can finally rid of himself of his injury problems, he can become an integral part of the Arsenal midfield for years to come.

However, this return represents somewhat of an impasse—at what point will Wenger give up on this French prodigy?

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Abou Diaby is a midfielder of rare quality.

 

Qualities

Signed from Auxerre in 2006 for a BBC Sport-reported £2 million, Diaby was set to be yet another unearthed diamond from Wenger's homeland, and the Arsenal manager called him "a tremendous addition to our squad."

A tall, imposing central midfielder, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that one of Diaby's main attributes is his exceptional ball control and skill.

As per Squawka, prior to his unfortunate lay-off last season Diaby completed the sixth-most take ons (28) of any Arsenal player, despite making only 11 appearances—less than half that of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who completed the fifth-most (30).

Of those above him, only Santi Cazorla had a more impressive success rate, with the Spaniard's 66 percent comparable to Diaby's 64 percent.

Elsewhere, Diaby has proven himself as a solid defensive player, and the Frenchman made 24 interceptions in those 11 appearances according to Squawka.

This posits the 27-year-old as the third-most effective reader of the game in the Arsenal squad for that season, with a rate of 2.2 interceptions per game. Only Nacho Monreal (2.5) and Mikel Arteta (2.9) made more on average.

Furthermore, as seen in the video above (goal five), Diaby has the pace and power to surge from midfield and finish moves with aplomb.

After that game—a 3-1 win away to Newcastle in 2009—Wenger made the comparison between Diaby and Vieira, as per Rob Stewart of The Telegraph:

There are similarities with Vieira. He is a bit the same stature, the same size. He has power coming up the middle of the park. He showed that on the goal and that of course is very interesting he has similarities with Vieira and I believe he is growing at the moment.

However, despite all of these qualities, Diaby's enduring attribute is unfortunately his tendency to get injured.

 

Injuries

It is not uncommon to see the Emirates' treatment table overcrowded; Arsenal are renowned for being plagued by injuries.

This season Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain have all faced long spells out with injury.

An ever-present alongside these players has been Diaby.

The graphic above shows the extent to which the Frenchman has been absent from the Gunners' first-team due to myriad problems.

This is something which led to Diaby considering retirement—his latest lay-off left the 27-year-old debating whether or not he could still contribute to the cause at the North London club:

It has been the longest absence of my whole career. You ask yourself if you are still a football player. You think about giving up. I told myself: I am fed up. I quit! ... I am a believer and in my belief despair doesn't exist. Moreover, I am only 28 years old. I still have five, six years remaining, maybe more.

Diaby will actually turn 28 next weekend, on Sunday May 11. This resolution—that Diaby believes his best years may still lie ahead of him—will come as a relief to Arsenal supporters, as when fit the Frenchman is a devastating force and one of supreme worth to the Gunners' squad. 

Julian Finney/Getty Images
Diaby celebrates with Lukas Podolski in the Champions League.

 

Diaby's Worth

With the rare qualities that Diaby possesses, his absence is something that Wenger has failed to legislate for in recent years.

The signing of Mathieu Flamini this season on a free transfer from AC Milan has provided the Arsenal midfield with some much-needed steel, but there often still remains a gulf between these holding players and the attacking might of Ozil, Cazorla and Ramsey.

As seen in the video above—a Match of the Day analysis of Diaby's Man of the Match performance against Liverpool last season—when the Frenchman is in the Arsenal side he is a dominant feature across the midfield.

Wilshere can fulfill the role in terms of link-up play, but he lacks the physicality of Diaby.

If Arsene Wenger can keep his prodigious Frenchman fit for an extended period—even rid him of his injury problems—Diaby will form a integral part of the Arsenal midfield.

Wenger's most elusive talent is also his most frustrating, as Diaby is the player Arsenal so desperately need.

 

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