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Abou Diaby: A Potential Patrick Vieira Replacement That He Never Will Be

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The life of a professional footballer is quite short compared to other occupations. Most footballers see their careers last about 20 years, but unfortunately some are unable to fulfill their dream of playing at the highest level. Owen Hargreaves, Marco Van Basten and Dean Ashton are a few players who were forced to cut their careers short, due to several reoccurring injuries. It’s not common for a 26-year-old footballer to hang up his boots, but it may be a decision Arsenal midfielder Abou Diaby will have to contemplate in the next few years. Diaby, who was once compared to Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira by manager Arsene Wenger, hasn’t lived up to his full potential since joining the club in January 2006.

Diaby signed with the Gunners from French club Auxerre for £2m when he was 19, choosing to shape his career in North London, instead of signing with rivals Chelsea. Diaby admitted in an interview with French magazine L’Equipe that Jose Mourinho tried to sign him, during his tenure at the club.

“I even had a chat with Jose Mourinho. He was very frank and told me: ‘I have a big team, with big players and I can’t guarantee you anything, but we do want you,’ Diaby said. Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger told me that he was looking for a midfielder to replace (Patrick) Vieira, that I had the same profile and that I would play,” he said.

The Frenchman is more of a box-to-box midfielder that possesses the technical skill to dribble past opponents with his penetrating runs. Diaby also has the ability to sit deep in a midfield two, and not only break up buildup play, but also spread incisive passes across the pitch. Along with those qualities, Diaby provides a goal scoring threat, and only Manchester City’s Yaya Toure possesses identical characteristics to the Arsenal man. The French midfielder is the physical presence in the centre of the pitch that Arsenal has lacked since the departure of Patrick Vieira and now Alex Song.

Earlier in the season, Diaby created a fine partnership with teammate Mikel Arteta. Both men were superb in Arsenal’s 2-0 victory at Anfield, but unfortunately the duo hasn’t had the luxury of playing along side one another due to Diaby’s injuries. Former Auxerre manager Guy Roux believes Diaby was given a special talent that separated him from many midfielders in the world.

“Abou is a gift of nature for a coach and all lovers of football. He can eliminate four or five players in a row without retreat. He has a touch of the ball and a great vision of the game,” Roux said.

Roux’s predecessor Jacques Santini had similar feelings, but admitted that constant injuries led to his sale.

“Abou was one of the players I used at the start of the season and then he had to stop because of repetitive injuries,” Santini said.

Since joining the Gunners in 2006, Diaby has been sidelined 37 times according to psyhioroom.com.  During that time, torn MCL’s, broken legs, ankles and hamstring injuries have seen the Frenchmen struggle to get in a consistent run of matches. Throughout Diaby’s career, many managers have praised the Arsenal midfielder. Earlier this season, French manager Didier Deschamps shared his insights on the Arsenal midfielder, when he scored the winner in a World Cup qualifier against Finland.

“He is a boy with a lot of qualities, but I knew that. He is a complete midfielder,” Deschamps said.

Vieira also was full of praise for the man who was brought in to be his successor at not only Arsenal, but also the French national team.

“About his potential, he is better than me, better on a technical level, better dribbler, and better scorer too. In one word, more versatile than I was,” Vieira said. Maybe I was better in terms of physical impact. I suppose it is very difficult for him to have not reached his best. But maybe it is not too late,” he said.

With so much promise and expectation, one would ask why Diaby hasn’t developed into a world-class player during his eight years at Arsenal? Diaby has featured in 42% of Arsenal’s Premier League games over the past eight seasons, and has featured 182 times since joining the club at the start of 2006.

Arsenal v FC Porto - UEFA Champions League

Like with his Arsenal career, Diaby has been unable to cement a place for himself as a first team regular in the French national team. Diaby has made 17 appearances for France since 2007, while players such as Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri, who also debuted that year, have made at least 35. Diaby was set to play a vital role in Laurent Blanc’s Euro 2012 team, but he suffered a thigh injury months prior to the tournament.

Diaby’s career has been unable to make significant progress as a player over the past years, and it has affected both Arsenal and France. The Arsenal midfielder has played in 40 games over the last three seasons, most notably in 2011/2012 when Diaby made five appearances off the bench. When Diaby has played more than 30 minutes this season, the Gunners have won 12 games from a possible 14, losing to only Chelsea and Manchester City. Meanwhile, France has lost only once post-World Cup, when Diaby has played for a minimal 45 minutes. Diaby being fragile and injury prone is clear, but his influence on both sides has been missed.

Diaby’s statistics show that the Frenchman’s absence from the side is massive. According to whoscored.com, Diaby is one of the best passers with an 88.05 passing percentage, and is also one of the club’s top players in terms of interceptions and completed dribbles. It was reported at the end of March, that the Frenchman would be shelved for approximately nine months after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.  Diaby will end another season sidelined, and it leaves many fans curious as to what the future holds for the Arsenal midfielder.

The Arsenal board could sell him, but what side would be interested in taking a gamble and signing him? With Diaby heading into what should be the peak of his career, is he capable of staying fit and displaying why he could be one of the top midfielders in world football? What is certain is that failure to stay fit over the next few seasons will see Diaby become the man that should have, could have and would have, but didn’t.

As his former manager Roux pointed out, Diaby’s talent is unquestioned, but constant injuries have slowed down his progress.

“Unfortunately, he (Abou) lacks the strength in his lower limbs. He is mounted on two matchsticks with glue in the middle. Lord gave him immense talent, but he is also quite fragile.”