Last season, just after Abou Diaby was injured again after a 20-minute substitute appearance against Fulham in November, French newspaper L’Equipe ran a full-page picture of the midfielder with red marks and arrows pointing to all the parts of his body affected by injuries. He looked like the bionic man: over 25 different injuries have kept him out for more than two weeks at a time since joining Arsenal in summer 2005.
On his day, as he showed in Arsenal’s recent 2-0 win at Liverpool and last week’s 1-0 win for France in Finland in which he scored the winner, Diaby has the ability to be one of the best in the world, an all-powerful midfield presence, someone who can sit deep and win the ball, drive the team forward with a counter-attack, and with the technique and vision to find a decisive pass or score himself.
Yaya Toure is perhaps the only other player with similar attributes, although his first coach at Auxerre, Guy Roux, thinks Diaby is unique: “No player in his position can do what Abou can do,” Roux said. “He can take out four or five players without flinching. He has technique and great vision; he can create and defend and can play in any position, even if he is best as an attacking midfielder. But in a 4-4-2, he can even play as second striker.”
Unfortunately for Diaby and Arsenal, those days have been few and far between: in his seven seasons at the club (before the current campaign), he has started 82 league games, an average of just over 11 per season.
And now, in the blink of an eye, it might be happening again. Diaby missed Tuesday’s France win over Belarus, with reports that a hip injury will keep him out for no more than six days. Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger insisted on Thursday that it was not serious, rating the midfielder 50-50 for Saturday’s game against Southampton, but there are obvious concerns that Diaby simply cannot cope with playing two games per week.
This summer he re-acquainted himself with an old colleague: fitness coach Renaud Longuevre, who transformed his game after working with him in summer 2009. Back then, Diaby went on to start 26 Premier League games for Arsenal (still his best total) and earned a call-up to France’s World Cup squad. Longuevre helped him improve three aspects of his game: his strength in one-on-ones, his upper body strength to improve heading, and his stamina because, as Diaby put it: “I do a lot of running between the boxes but after a 50-metre dash, I’m no longer lucid enough to find the right pass or put in a good shot. I can now score after running 60 metres flat out whereas before I had no legs left after 30.”
Longuevre, who was behind sprinter Ladji Doucoure becoming the 110m hurdles world champion in 2005, had the blessing of Wenger. They would meet in a gym in Paris and work all day. “Abou was never late, never missed a session,” Longuevre said. “He gave everything without moaning and without hiding either. A weaker guy would have found an excuse to get out of it.”
It says something that not just Wenger but France’s last three coaches have all wanted a fit Diaby in their sides. “His versatility is a huge asset,” said Raymond Domenech; “I’m not the only one who adores Abou!” said Laurent Blanc while current boss Didier Deschamps added: “He can become a key player for us if he puts his physical problems to one side.”
Diaby made his France debut in March 2007, in a qualifier against Lithuania. Karim Benzema made his debut in the same game, and he has now played 52 times for Les Bleus. Diaby has made just 16 appearances.
The longest time he was out through injury was eight months with a broken ankle in April 2006, after a challenge from Sunderland’s Dan Smith (who the French press have called ‘The Butcher’); he had three operations and doctors thought he might have to retire. “It’s true that when things were very bad and it crossed my mind I might have to give up on my career. I said to myself no, that’s not my destiny,” Diaby told L’Equipe.
After the 2010 World Cup, he damaged the same ankle in a challenge with Bolton’s Paul Robinson. “After that tackle, I had what’s called an osteophyte, which is like a bone fracture: my medical vocab is so good I could be a doctor,” he explained. He lost his speed and acceleration and was in terrible pain. Despite that, he had an injection and played again two weeks later, when Michael Essien caught him in the exact same spot. With that ankle obviously weakened, Diaby was compensating on the other ankle, and other injuries naturally followed. He missed another two months of that season.
Last season was his worst yet: a series of different injuries reduced his league appearances to just four as a substitute, which is why he called for Longuevre in the summer. Diaby’s ability has never been in doubt: Roux wanted him to stay at Auxerre for three more years and claimed he could have then sold him for €35m (instead of the €4.5m he cost Arsenal). “His injuries are not down to a lack of seriousness or professionalism: he has immense talent but he is also just fragile,” added Roux.
And that’s why this glimpse of Diaby fully-fit, now 26 and at the peak of his powers, is double-edged: it leaves you wondering just how much more he would have achieved had the last six years been smoother for him and, more significantly, how much Arsenal and France would be improved if he can stay fit throughout this season (and future ones, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).
As Diaby himself put it in an old interview with L’Equipe: “Technique is not a problem for me, the ball sticks to my foot. But if I can handle things physically, then I can be among the best in the world.”