02 July 2015

Adieu, Abou.

On Wednesday, the long, tragic farce that was once a promising career came to an end as Arsenal, after nearly a decade of frustration, finally parted ways with Abou Diaby, letting him leave the club rather than offering him a new contract with elaborate pay-to-play provisions. He's now free, such as it is, to pursue options in other leagues in which the play is less physical than it is in the Prem (or in which the referees are less willing to turn a blind eye to reckless tackles). Something in me had hoped that there would be one more resurrection, one more phoenix-like rebirth that allow us all to finally bask in awe at the marvels that Diaby was once capable of. Instead, those thoughts will die with his Arsenal tenure.

I once watched a wolf spider, a spider as large as my hand, dance and scamper across the surface of a pond. It was at once balletic and frenetic and languid. This was Diaby on his day. His arms and legs, longer and lankier than anyone else on the pitch were both hyper-kinetic and silky smooth. Go back to his swash-buckling domineeing of Liverpool in 2012, where he was everywhere at once, stealing passes, making tackles and avoiding them, threading passes and galloping into the heart of Liverpool's defense. He was a one-man wrecking crew, by turns outrunning by-rights faster Scousers and then outmuscling brawnier ones, all while delivering delicately weighted passes or howitzer-like shots. In a squad that included the still-settling in Cazorla, Podolski, and Giroud, still struggling to cope with the departure of van Persie, with Mannone and Jenkinson in defense, Diaby was a revelation—at least to those who had forgotten or never seen what he's capable of.

We all know the story by now—or should. May 2006, just months after joining the club from Auxerre, Diaby would have his ankle obliterated in a horrific "tackle" from Sunderland's Dan Smith. He'd never be the same from that day forward even after three surgeries and eight months of rehabilitation. From then on, injuries rather than appearances defined his time at Arsenal, at times becoming the almost-literal embodiment of Arsenal over the last decade: infinite potential repeatedly undermined by injury. Had he stayed healthy, we might hail him as one of the best Arsenal's ever seen. Instead, he's become a maligned and mocked figure, as if he's somehow been nicking a living.

If you've suffered a catastrophic injury only to come back to a level of fitness and performance that matched or exceeded your pre-injury form, maybe you can lay into Diaby. If you've been fortunate enough to live your life without ever suffering a catastrophic injury or a series of niggling ones, hold your tongue. While it's impossible to prove that Diaby's litany of injuries was caused by that one tackle, it's similarly difficult to resist linking the phenomena. It's possible, even probable, that he started to subconsciously favor the injured right leg, subjecting the left to further stress, fatigue, and injury. Similarly, the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in that right leg couldn't ever recover the same strength or flexibility they once had. With each subsequent injury, the cat-calls and brickbats grew in number, volume, and venom, coercing Diaby to rush back in order to prove his grit—thereby exacerbating the very same injuries so many of us rushed to criticise him for.

When he tore his ACL in March 2013, I was actually relieved. Here, finally, was an injury worthy of the name, one that would keep the hounds at bay and afford the man time to actually recover. There's no rushing back from an ACL injury, and this time might allow the rest of his body to heal as well. Sadly, that hope was dashed just as cruelly as all the others had been. Aside from a few appearances with the u21 squad, his final appearance with the first team would be the League Cup loss to Southampton in September 2014.

Now, he's been cast loose. At one level, this might signify a new, more-ruthless era under Arsène, one in which sentiment is supplanted by strategy. Diaby might then be the first casualty of that new era. Lesser players than him have come and gone, but few will tantalize to the degree that he did. I'm gutted to see him go. If your heart is still hardened against a man whose body betrayed him time and time again, watch the havoc he wrought on the opposition...