Denilson Pereira Neves, and Vassiriki "Abou" Diaby are part of a crop of young, highly talented, foreign-born players Arsene Wenger signed between 2004 and 2006.
Denilson, Diaby, Nicklas Bendtner, Gael Clichy, Alex Song, Carlos Vela, and Cesc Fabregas are all current members of Arsenal's first team who were signed as teenagers despite little or no professional experience.
Now, all have played at least four full seasons with the Gunners, and, with the exception of the 21-year-old Vela, all will be between 22 and 24 years of age by the end of the World Cup.
Fabregas needs no introduction; Clichy, when healthy, has been a starter since 2006; and Bendtner and Song had breakout years in 2009-10.
Last season, inconsistent form and injuries saw Denilson and Diaby juggle time for most of the year as Song's central midfield partner.
Denilson, whose stellar 2008-09 campaign had many predicting big things, was sidelined for two months in September by a back injury, allowing Diaby to take over the starting role. Diaby joined Song and Fabregas in a dynamic midfield trio that saw Arsenal through its most successful period before he suffered his own injury in early November.
After Boxing Day, both players were more or less fit until a nagging groin injury downed Denilson for the last few weeks of the season.
Over the course of the up-and-down second half, neither player emerged as the clear favorite for the starting job in 2010-11. However, both are still very much in the team's plans going forward.
Is this the year that Denilson or Diaby steps up and becomes a full-time starter at the left center midfield role?
The Five-Year Rule?
In assessing the two young midfielders' future prospects in Wenger's squad, an interesting corollary can be derived from the recent development of other young Gunners.
Fullback Gael Clichy was named to the PFA First Team after his second season as a starter in 2008. This past season saw Song emphatically cement his position in the Arsenal starting XI while Bendtner showed massive improvement, not only in his strike rate against top opponents but in his assists tally with the club, which almost doubled in just 31 appearances.
What do these three seasons—Clichy's 2007-08 campaign, and Song's and Bendtner's 2009-10 campaigns—have in common?
Each came in the player's fifth year under Arsene Wenger's tutelage.
Denilson and Diaby are both entering their fifth seasons at the Emirates in 2010-11. Can it be that either or both players are due for a career-making season of their own?
In order to better predict the two young midfielders' fifth-year outlook, it would do well to examine how their Arsenal tenures compare to the early career trajectories of three players who have already earned starting spots.
Patience Is a Virtue: The Emergence of Clichy, Song, and Bendtner
Before breaking through at Arsenal, both Song and Bendtner became national team regulars for their native Cameroon and Denmark, respectively. The confidence and high-level experience that this imparted to each of them arguably had a dramatic impact on their professional play.
Clichy did not begin to see time with the senior French national team until after his breakthrough at the Emirates. However, for three seasons before becoming a starter, he played as a backup to Ashley Cole, current England international and one of the best left fullbacks in the world over the last decade.
By the start of the 2006-07 season, Clichy had not only made 62 appearances for Arsenal, but he had also been mentored by a world-class fullback in the prime of his career.
Song and Bendtner both had even more appearances under their belts than Clichy (90 and 141, respectively) when they managed to stamp their indelible marks upon the Gunners' first team last season. Also similar to Clichy, the departure of an established starter created the holes in the Arsenal lineup that enabled Song and Bendtner to emerge.
Clearly, "it ain't easy" to make it at Ashburton Grove full-time.
It took five years of patient development, mentorship, and first-team football before these three players achieved their potential. Each has room for improvement, but as young players just entering their physical and technical peaks, there is every reason to expect that their numbers will be entered in the Arsenal starting lineup for years to come.
How Do Denilson and Diaby Stack Up?
Denilson and Diaby have each made well over 100 appearances in the red and white since joining the club in 2006. Both learned from Arsenal great Gilberto Silva until his departure in 2008, though neither had the opportunity of playing at the club with Patrick Vieira, in whose legendary shadow they really stand.
Like Clichy early on, Denilson's senior national team call-up has yet to come, though he has captained Brazil at every junior level since U-15s. For the 22-year-old, it should only be a matter of time before he once again dons the feared and revered yellow and blue.
Diaby has played with the senior French national team, though he has only made seven appearances since 2007. Furthermore, his experience with this year's World Cup team should hurt his development, if anything, rather than help it. (Sacré bleu! What a train wreck!)
It's impossible to make a definitive case for either Denilson or Diaby having a breakout year this season. Both players share certain traits with one or more of Wenger's other recent success stories; both players lack advantages that the others had; both bring novel considerations to the table that must be considered in their own right.
For instance, what effect does their two-man competition for the one starting spot have on their individual levels of motivation? What effect does it have on their technical and tactical development? What overall impact does it have on team morale?
The mere coincidence that Denilson and Diaby are entering their magical fifth seasons with the club is no guarantee of their success going forward.
Still, the fact that both are experienced doubtless works in their favor. That both have worked with established players and have played at the highest level of European football is fine, as well.
However, in order to predict their form in 2010-11, their individual qualifications, strengths, weaknesses, production, and recent form all need to be analyzed.
Denilson in 2010-11: Learning from Past Mistakes
Even more than the young Gunners that have already made good, Denilson and Diaby are tasked with learning a position that is not just strategically important but also tactically demanding.
Both players are strong tacklers and deft passers who possess distinctive offensive weapons. Whoever demonstrates mastery of the difficult left center midfield job should not only secure the starting spot in the Arsenal formation but will likely also become one of the premier box-to-box midfielders in a league that is already stacked at the position.
As previously mentioned, Denilson entered last season as the presumptive favorite for the job. Though tactically suspect from a defensive standpoint, his 2008-09 performance highlighted his remarkable composure in support of Arsenal's fast-paced, quick-passing attack.
Given the expectations that Denilson's previous campaign generated, last season was a disappointment.
Denilson was regularly caught out of position on the counterattack and often lost marking assignments. In the group stage and in the first knockout round of the Champions League, the young Brazilian was particularly memorable for his head-in-the-clouds attitude toward defense.
The offensive contribution, augmented by a few wonderfully struck long-distance goals, was there when he was healthy, but defensively, Denilson was a liability.
That being said, 2009-10 was not a disappointment as much as it was a reality check.
Simply put, expectations were too high for Denilson going into the season. Yes, he had the most touches in the Premiership the previous year; however, the excitement over his best supporting actor's role in the offense caused many to overlook his weak tactical play in the middle and defensive thirds.
Though raw youth once again reared its head in his injury-plagued 2009-10 campaign, Denilson has what it takes to become a dependable box-to-box midfield player and has demonstrated consistent progress in every year he has been at the club.
He is intelligent, modest, and hard-working. It is not for nothing that many compared him upon his arrival to Gilberto, who rose above a similarly impoverished favela upbringing. Every year since 2006, Denilson's game has progressed, his immense natural talent has been better cultivated, and his maturity level has increased.
Defensive players mature later than most, and a player who is asked to combine defense with offensive distribution essentially has two assignments to learn. Denilson may not have become a premier defensive midfielder at the age of 20, but at 22, he is still well ahead of the world-class curve. 2010-11 and 2011-12 should prove breakout seasons for Denilson, as his experience, intelligence, and work ethic shine through.
Diaby in 2010-11: Inconsistent? Since When?
Diaby, for four years now, has shown the skill set of a truly world-class player in his ability to charge forward in transition and create marvelous scoring chances seemingly out of nowhere.
At his best, Diaby is one of Arsenal's finest players.
However, the knock on him is the same now as it was when he moved from Auxerre: He is inconsistent. He follows up a masterful, game-changing performance, as often as not, with an anonymous or immature outing.
When he came over late in the 2005-06 season, he was an immensely talented, yet raw and unpredictable, 19-year-old.
Now, while Diaby's production has increased along with his starts and appearances from year-to-year, he is still as inconsistent as when he arrived.
To wit: Last year, despite injuries, he had his most productive campaign, with six goals and four assists in 29 league appearances. However, two of those goals came in Arsenal's first match of the season, only one goal came after January 1, and no goals or assists came after February 10.
Compared to Denilson, Diaby has three significant strikes against him.
First, at 24, he's arguably no longer a young player. Diaby is almost an elder statesman by Gunners standards. Granted, he's trying to learn a difficult position, but one wonders whether he is inconsistent because of his "youth" or because he is simply a mercurial talent by nature.
The second strike against Diaby relates to the same issue of remaining potential.
With all the top-level training Diaby has had over the years, how long can supporters continue to excuse his rough edges and insist that his inconsistency will even out with age?
Is it not possible that Diaby is just running out of room for growth?
He has benefited from world-class handling for almost half his life. From the training ground at Paris Saint-Germain to the exclusive Clairefontaine football academy to Auxerre, Highbury, and the Emirates, he has had nothing but the best since he was 13 years old.
If Wenger and PSG have not been able to train the lack of discipline out of him, what will it take for Diaby to suddenly become Mr Consistency?
The third strike against Diaby is not his fault, per se, but it bears mentioning.
Diaby is simply injury-prone. His horrific 2006 injury was a random tragedy of the sort to which no player should ever be subjected. Ever since his recovery, however, and according to his own admission, Diaby has struggled to stay match fit.
Speaking to L'Equipe earlier this month, Diaby conceded, "Injuries have slowed down my evolution.
"I tried to find the reason to my injuries [sic], why it happened so often. Now I take care about anything: treatments, rest, physical work, warm-ups."
Diaby possesses prodigious talent, and supporters never know when he is going to unleash a jaw-dropping, all-time-great performance. He has earned the reputation of an injury-prone, frustratingly inconsistent player, however, and it may be reasonably wondered whether the 24-year-old Frenchman is ever going to shake that stigma.
Assuming Wenger signs the obscure defender or defenders of his dreams and is able to resolve the goalkeeping situation, Arsenal's biggest lineup question mark will be at left center midfield.
To fill that role, more than they need another electrifying virtuoso capable of taking over and winning a match single-handedly, Arsenal need a solid, consistent performer who fully understands all the facets of the position.
Now, toward the end of June, many options exist for finding such a player outside of the Arsenal system. The talented Denilson-Diaby duo has gained invaluable experience in the system for the last four years, however, and either could reasonably be expected to emerge as a full-time starter this season.
Denilson's temperament and track record make him more likely to grow into the role of the dependable, tactically sound supporting cast-member that Arsenal need to round out a superb midfield trio.
Diaby, without a doubt, is the more electrifying talent, but Denilson has youth, intelligence, and far more potential on his side.
As yet, any prediction is purely academic, as neither has shown the reliable form or mature tactical understanding to become a full-time starter for Wenger. To start the season, the two-man rotation should persist with Diaby starting when his size and strength are especially needed and Denilson starting when his quickness and accuracy are preferable. Each should be ready to sub in when the other falters.
The main thing, counterintuitive as it may sound to some after five years in the wilderness, is to be patient. Arsenal's young guns have been developing for years; some have already justified Wenger's faith, and signs point to either Denilson or Diaby having a breakout campaign this season.
There's little reason to expect the incoming transfer of a new defensive midfielder, and there's little need for it.
In Arsene We Trust.