I like Abou Diaby. I can’t work out exactly where he should play, where he is best suited, or how he can benefit Arsenal the most, but I really think there is something there. He is not an enforcer, in the Makelele sense of the word, and is not a natural attacking midfielder in the way that Fabregas breaks from deeper positions. There are few box-to-box players around today, partly because so many teams now play three central midfielders that the duties can be shared out, but Diaby looks like he is a box-to-box player, and that he should be good at it.
The problem I have with Diaby though, is that when I see him I think of Patrick Vieira. The latter may have been a tougher player, and more defensive than Diaby, but both covered most of the pitch. The sight of a leggy Frenchman galloping up and down Arsenal’s midfield is reminiscent of what the former Gunners’ captain would do during his pomp.
Even though I rate Diaby – I think he is a valuable asset to a squad, susceptible to drifting out of games, but on the whole a good player to call upon – he will never be as good as Vieira. Patrick Vieira, along with Roy Keane, were the best central midfielders ever to play in the Premier League; they dominated games. So not being as good as someone as excellent as Vieira is no shameful thing, but it plays on my mind.
Both just over 6”3”, both arrived at Arsenal at the age of 19 with modest careers, both went on to play for the national side after a couple of seasons at Arsenal. While both are/were capable of doing their defensive duties (Vieira revelling in it far more), they also had a companion to rely on. Where Vieria’s read Emmanuel Petit, Diaby’s says Alex Song. In both systems they had the opportunity to break and support their teammates; Vieira bulldozing his way through, where Diaby is neat touches and happy to run with the ball.
Diaby has just entered his sixth season at Arsenal. By this time in his Arsenal career, Vieira had won two Premier League titles and two FA Cups, captaining his side along the way when Tony Adams retired. Diaby however, is nowhere near this level of performance or leadership and it is unlikely he will ever reach that level.
Like Nani with Cristiano Ronaldo, or Lassana Diarra with Claude Makalele, there are comparisons that will fall hard on the younger – and let’s be honest, weaker – player when such obvious similarities occur. They can reach heights of total respectability, but will have to make do with comparisons with some of the best players the league has ever seen.
Perhaps I am being harsh on Diaby with an unnecessary comparison that he doesn’t need, or maybe even deserve, but I can’t escape the physical similarities. Maybe it’s a pining to see Vieira at his peak again, and I can’t bring myself to see him sitting on the priciest bench in town, watching Yaya Toure run the Eastlands midfield. Diaby is good, but Vieira was great. If the Vieria of ’98 was playing for Arsenal now, they’re title ambitions would be so much more attainable.
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