18 March 2013

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Diaby?

I think we'll agree that Abou Diaby has been one of  the most frustrating and disappointing players of the last few years. As this season began, he appeared to have come back from last year's injuries through a string of strong performances, such as when he completely dominated Liverpool when we went to Anfield. Then, he went down again in September against Chelsea. Since his return in January, his performance has been uneven, and that's putting it mildly.
However, before we come down too hard on the man, let's remember a few things--he's "only" 26, for one. I say this because, due to his injuries, he's made just 122 Prem appearances for us over eight years. That's a number that a healthy player can reach in just over three seasons. This deprives him of valuable experience and delays his development. To miss all of those games and practice sessions can only mean that his form is going to suffer. Then there's the mental aspect of it--once a player suffers an injury, the doubt and tentativeness set in: "will I get hurt again?" What's more, one injury can trigger another. It seems that Jack Wilshere's new ankle injury, if only to prove that it happens to everyone's fave, could come down to adjustments he made to his stride, consciously or otherwise. The number of knocks Diaby has suffered must also be personally frustrating to him. He doesn't strike me as a lazy man content to draw a check for doing nothing. If he was, Arshavin is there to remind that him that that position has already been filled.

Now that he's back and apparently healthy, and with Wilshere down for a few more weeks, we need him to stay healthy. He turned in one of strongest performances of the year against Swansea (granted, he's only made ten appearances) even if he was occasionally tentative, rusty, or slow. Despite this, he brings elements to the game that we sometimes lack. For one, he's the only midfielder we have who can't moonlight as a Smurf. He's been compared to Patrick Vieira and Yaya Toure as he can bomb up and down the field, box-to-box, and constantly looks to press forward. It's ironic, given his history of fragility, that he's one of our more-rugged players, looking for and making aggressive tackles. Maybe it's not so much ironic as apt that a player who goes in for challenges is going to get hurt. Most of his injuries are strains--and this is something that can be prevented through stretching, yoga, and warming up. I can't claim to know what his pre-game ritual includes, of course, but more of x, y or z might be worth considering.

There have been calls suggesting that we should sell him in the summer, but I think we'd be fools to do so. He wouldn't be the first player to show flashes of brilliance from beneath a veneer of injuries. A certain striker struggled through injuries for just as long as Diaby has; when he finally played a full season, he scored 30 Prem League goals for us. I'm not suggesting that Diaby is going to emerge from his own history in similar style. I'm just saying that, for as rare as those moments of brilliance have been, it's worth keeping him around just a little longer. He should have at least five more years of quality football left in him, and if he can regain any of the form and class he showed against Liverpool, it would be a fine time indeed.