Abou Diaby: How His Broken Bones Broke Arsenal Hearts
It is always saddening when a player that has devoted the majority of their career to a club departs for pastures new.
The end of this past Premier League season has demonstrated that fact aptly well, as Steven Gerrard's legendary spell at Liverpool drew to an emotional close, Didier Drogba and Petr Cech said his final goodbyes to Chelsea, and the inspirational Jonas Gutierrez bid farewell to his second home in Newcastle.
These are difficult times for the fans that have grown attached to the effort and performances these players produced on a nightly basis for the club, and for their fellow teammates and staff that need to adapt in their absence. Yet, they get to fall back on the wonderful memories they created, and recall the success they brought in their time in the squad.
With that in mind, there is therefore nothing sadder than a player who devoted a decade to a team, and departed leaving only questions of What If?
Abou Diaby joined Arsenal in 2006, at the age of 19, from French club Auxerre for a fee of around £2 million. This appeared to be a bargain, considering the interest the Frenchman attracted from other European teams, notably Chelsea.
Diaby seemed to be cut from the same mold that produced Arsenal midfield icon Patrick Vieira, who at that time had only just left the Gunners for Juventus. Well over 6 feet tall and a powerful runner, he was certainly a progidy that could be shaped by Arsene Wenger into the heart of Arsenal's midfield, and his early displays demonstrated that there was a great deal of potential in him.
Despite his tender years he was thrust into the Arsenal team, and was playing with confidence, scoring his first goal for the club in a 5-0 rout of Aston Villa.
However, this was unfortunately just a precursor to what would become the tragic story of his Arsenal stay. Diaby suffered a horrendous fracture of his ankle following a challenge by Sunderland's Dan Smith, an injury that could have easily ended his entire career before it even began.
After three surgeries and eight gruelling months of rehabilitation, Diaby returned to a great reception in a League Cup clash with Liverpool. He was in and out of the team for the majority of 2007, unable to seal a regular first-team spot, but his form was improving and due to his young age was still considered a big part of Arsenal's future. A few more niggling injuries again derailed his progress somewhat, but Diaby was still not viewed in a negative light.
The 2009/10 season appeared to be the year that established Diaby as a critical part of Arsenal's future.
He was part of a dynamic and flexible three-man midfield with Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song, which gave the Frenchman the freedom to cover all ground on the pitch. He would stride forward when the Gunners were in a free-flowing attack, and then able to fall back and defend when necessary. Mixing his work rate and dribbling power with Fabregas' creativity and Song's defensive prowess, they were a force to be reckoned with, and Diaby registered career-best figures of 40 appearance, 7 goals and 6 assists.
He was still raw and developing as a player, but this was clearly a positive indication that he had what it took to marshal Arsenal's midfield and slip into the role left by Vieira and Gilberto Silva.
Sadly, this would turn out to be the peak of an Arsenal tenure that regularly shifted from promise to disaster.
In the next five years at the club Diaby would only make two more appearances than in the entirety of the 2009/10 season, as injuries ravaged his footballing pursuits. It took away his consistent spot in the team's midfield, as he often only stepped out from the bench whenever he was fit enough to feature in any form whatsoever.
These afflictions ranged from short-term niggles to long-term wrecks, which meant Arsenal could no longer rely on his appearances throughout a season. They still stood by him, and especially when Song departed he was welcomed back with open arms in a defensive midfield role. But he would still only make 15 appearances that campaign, and it was cut short by an anterior cruciate ligament injury that kept him out for over a year.
In his final two seasons with the Gunners, Diaby could only manage two appearances, a desperate figure for a man whose career was ladeled with desperation. Luck was never on his side, and despite the faith shown in him throughout his years of service by not only Wenger and his staff, but the loyal Arsenal fans as well, this was the final straw.
At the age of 29 and his body ravaged by one setback after another, it was no longer viable to retain his services, and his decade of disappointment came to a whimpering end. As an Arsenal fan myself, this departure is almost as painful as the day that world class players like Thierry Henry, Fabregas and Robin Van Persie departed - Diaby certainly was not in their class of talent, but it is distressing to see a career that had such promise end on such a muted, uncelebrated note.
Lest Arsenal fans forget that Diaby, as unlucky as he was, gave ten years of service to their beloved club.
This decade might only have produced 180 appearances, but whenever he was available and fit, he was always working hard for the team's cause. Diaby had a great deal of potential, and if he'd been able to stay away from the crippling injuries that befell him, there is no doubt in my mind he wouldn't be leaving under these circumstances. Having a player of that ability now released into the wilderness is a sad sight to see, but what faith can you put in a player that spent a huge percentage of his time in England on a treatment table.
Diaby was a great player, and had a phenomenal work rate, and when he finds a new club to represent he will undoubtedly put that effort into them. But those upsides cannot mask the fact that you could not trust him to be available to play.
To put this into perspective, Diaby suffered 42 separate injuries during his time at Arsenal, and spent over 1500 days inactive. That is just not acceptable, and it is a credit to the Frenchman that his talent, effort and desire have kept him at a club like Arsenal this long in spite of all his time on the sidelines.
If and when he returns to action for another team, myself and many other Arsenal fans will likely feel a tinge of sadness unlike any other. This wasn't the case of a player moving on for more money or glory. He wasn't at the conclusion of a long, successful career. He wasn't a player deemed not worthy of playing at the top level. Diaby was simply a case of exceptional talent derailed by misfortune, and that is as tragic a tale as it gets.
It wouldn't surprise me if Arsene Wenger stared at his release list for a long time before making that difficult call, because Diaby had something about him that the manager clearly wanted to cling onto. He looked beyond the injuries and saw the skill that remained, and had he been allowed to progress would have fit into his jigsaw as a new Vieira (and that is coming from the illustrious midfielder himself).
Diaby was Arsenal's second longest-serving player, so had seen many names come and go in the squad and played in many different formations. Were sentiment to be the overriding emotion in this story, Diaby would be offered one final chance to prove his fitness and become the star he should have always been, but unfortunately in the business of football that cannot exist.
Arsenal are pushing for the Premier League title next season, and have constructed a strong, flexible and potent midfield that matches any in Europe today. Had he remained healthy, there is no question that Diaby would have had a place in that powerful midfield, but his injuries have worn away at both his consistency and potential.
So, it is with the heaviest of hearts that the club must bid adieu to this loyal servant.
I fervently hope that he can remain free of harm for the rest of his career, as that way whichever club that acquires his services will have a dogged and determined player that could be a diamond in the centre of the the pitch.
Alas, this could not happen for Arsenal, and it brings us back to the two words that will forever define his time with the Gunners: