Tag Archives: Abou Diaby

Eduardo…Diaby…Ramsey…is Saka next?

It’s common knowledge that every fan thinks it’s their own club the refs are biased against. Very few fans believe in conspiracy theories…unless their club is the target of the conspiracy. However, when it comes to Bukayo Saka, we have more than cognitive dissonance, more than confirmation bias, more than corrupt incompetence (or was it incompetent corruption?). We have ample evidence of the objective variety that there’s something wrong with how he’s being treated by opposing players and by referees. It’s getting to the worrisome point that he may have to suffer some kind of injury before those referees take off the blinders and start holding those players accountable. 

We at the Arsenal know a thing or two or three about what happens when physical crosses the line. Given the sheer number of times Saka gets fouled, it feels like only a matter of time before he suffers actual injury from it. It’s become a regular sight to see Saka trying to take on one (or, more often, two) defenders who resort to fouling him cynically once he quickly and thoroughly and repeatedly makes it clear that they don’t have the minerals to stop him. If it were just the parked busses and packed box-type teams that were hacking at his ankles and yanking at his jersey at just about every turn, we could see it as a compensation for the gap in quality. However, as we saw just two weeks ago, the most-expensive squad in the world had its left back tugging and kicking at and bruising Saka. Just one yellow card after the second or third foul rather than after the fourth or fifth doen’t seem like too much to ask.

When it’s the same player committing the fouls, as it was with Bernardo Silva, the argument for a booking is pretty clear. When it’s the same player getting fouled, the argument is somewhat less clear but still pretty compelling. If a team is targeting one opponent—as so frequently seems to happen to Saka—it is still incumbent to protect the player, to uphold the rules, and to issue consquences. Just how far short is this group of referees falling from clearing that very low bar (I think that mixed metaphor works…). Let’s look at that ample evidence of the objective variety that I mentioned earlier.

Saka has been fouled—excuse me—refs have seen hit to whistle forty fouls on Saka, a meagre fraction of the actual total. Players who have fouled Saka have been cautioned just four times or once for every ten fouls.  Other players in a similar situation enjoy somewhat better protection; I’ll leave it up to each man’s fans to decide whether it’s adequate. Zaha’s assailants have seen nine cards from 57 fouls (one card for every 6.3 fouls). Grealish’s have seen ten cards from 49 fouls (one card for every 4.9 fouls). Grealish, of course, is expert at trailing a leg after he’s gone past a defender to cause the kind of contact that looks like a foul. 

Maybe Manchester has a ref academy?

Grealish is one of the masters of causing that kind of contact, and this might be a factor in the levels of protection he enjoys. If I may be so bold, I’d like to offer another possible factor that does start to sound a bit conspiratorial. Of all of the refs in the Prem, not one is from London despite there being seven London teams in the Prem. There are approximately a dozen from the Manchester area if not Manchester itself. All of the referees are middle-class white men. I’m not crying “racism” here, lest you misread me. All I’m saying is that this lack of diversity among referees may allow some of them to suffer from some subconscious (or conscious) against the player if only because of who he plays for and whom they support. We would need far more-damning evidence before considering the possibility that race is a factor. There is some duck-like walking here and there, but I’ll leave it at that.

We have a preternaturally talented player here, a possibly generational player of the sort we’ll be telling our grandkids about. That can only happen though if Saka gets protection, if referees do their job. Perhaps it’s a bit dramatic of me to invoke the grim spectres of what happened to Eduardo, Diaby, and Ramsey, whose injuries were so gruesome that television stations were reluctant to air replays. Even if Saka’s trajectory is closer to, say Jack Wilshere’s, whose glass ankles were shattered innumerable times until the 19 year old who eviscerated Barcelona ended up missing 159 matches in ten years, preventing him ever fully realising that limitless potential for club or four country.

Of course, if it’s only Arteta who’s complaining, the FA and Prem referees have no real incentive to act. Would Gareth Southgate command more attention? Saka is quite close to being England’s best player. If any of you can ring him up and have him put in a good word for our starboy before it’s too late.

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At long last, Vieira returns to Arsenal!

It’s true, and not for the first time. Some are saying that he may soon be here to stay. Not me, though. That’s a bit of madness, but it’s understandable, such is Vieira’s legendary status, Arsenal’s difficulty in finding his “heir”, and the fact that we find ourselves mired midtable, just three points clear of Monday’s visitors. Of course, on Vieira’s first return to Arsenal, his erstwhile friend, colleague, and compatriot Robert Pirès greeted him with a somewhat impertinent tackle that left Vieira frustrated as Pirès launched a counter that saw Henry feed Fabregas for the opening goal in a 2-0 win, taking us one step closer to that 2006 Champions League final. Ever since Vieira left, we’ve hungered for someone to fill the role from which he dominated and domineered. Ever since Wenger left, many have wondered if Vieira could return as Arsenal’s manager. Come Monday, we have have more (or less) to wonder about.

For those doubting Arteta’s stewardship, Vieira’s visit must feel tantalising. He is, after all, a club legend and one of the best midfielders of his era. While we’ve had goalscorers (van Persie, Alexis, Aubameyang…) and playmakers (Özil) who could at least remind us of brighter days, we’ve never found that dominant, box-to-box midfielder who could disrupt opponents’ attacks, launch our own attacks, and get into the box to score. Abou Diaby showed flashes of it before Dan Smith ruined his career. There were rumours of us signing Michael Carrick, Xabi Alonso,or Yaya Touré , but of course none of that came to pass. Ramsey showed the occasional flashes but wasn’t enough of a defender to really fit the bill. There are hopes that Thomas will help us forget Vieira if only by being an upgrade on the likes of Xhaka, Coquelin, and other forgettable players.

More to the point, though, is that many are looking at Monday’s match as a showcare for Vieira’s heir but for Arteta’s, um, abdication? Sorry. I kind of painted myself into a corner with the rhyming, and nothing quite rhymes with “Arteta”. Anything less than a confident win for Arsenal will increase calls for his sacking, presumably to pave the way for Vieira to slot in…as if he doesn’t have a contract of his own to deal with. More to the point again, though, is that Vieira’s managerial CV is only slightly longer than Arteta’s, and his performance has hardly impressed. Yes, yes, he did do quite well with New York City FC, but his record at an actual club, Nice, where he lasted just a season and a half as Nice were eliminated from the Coupe de France in the round of 64 and from the Coupe de la Ligue in the round of 16, finished bottom of their Europa League group, and lost five matches across all competitions.

It’s quite likely that Vieira will prove to be a good or even great manager, but there isn’t much in the way of evidence of that yet. His Crystal Palace side haven’t really impressed yet, other than a 3-0 win over Tottenham due in some small part to Tottenham being reduced to ten men for the last half hour (during which time Palace scored all three of their goals). Vieira does seem to have the makings of a good manager. He doesn’t seem to project the kind of imperial arrogance that so many great players have, the kind of arrogance that makes it hard to communicate effectively with less-talented players. Very few great players go on to become great or even good managers. Instead, it seems that it’s the pretty good players who become the best managers. In time, Vieira may be one of those who bucks the trends. I wish him well. 

Just not on Monday. 

Thomas Partey proves he's not auditioning to play for an American football team…

When Thomas Partey joined Arsenal from Atletico Madrid, it felt too many like we had finally found that much-vaunted Vieira’s HeirTM, that dominating, physical box-to-box midfielder who could disrupt opponents’ attacks, link defense to attack, and bomb forward to score. There were flashes of that from the often-injured Elijah Price—er, Abou Diaby—but we’ve never truly found the player who could fill that role. Partey’s arrival seemed to herald the dawning of a new era. He quickly showed that he could dominate a midfield. His passing split lines and carved defenses open. He tackled with almost-reckless aplomb…and then came the shots. Simply put, it often seemed like the man was auditioning to take point-after tries for an American football team or perhaps a conversion for a proper rugby side. Some of his efforts are still being tracked by the Hubble Telescope. However, there is better news on the near-horizon.

During the international break, Thomas scored not just one but two goals, successfully kicking the ball—wait for thisunderneath the crossbar, not to mention between the posts. For the first, he was perhaps historically attuned to his predecessor and would be heir to Vieira’s throne, nicking the ball away from the opposition, dancing past a defender, and darting the ball low and to the keeper’s left and into the back of the net. But he wasn’t done. In the second match against Zimbabwe, Ghana earned a free kick from just outside the area. Thomas stepped up, and even with that first goal fresh in our memories, it would have been hard to resist the snarky expectation of a souvenir offered up to the cheap seats. However, Thomas offered a decent chip over the wall and the flummoxed keeper and into the top right corner to secure a vital 0-1 win for the Black Pips. But please. Don’t believe me. Observe this video (okay, these videos. There are two, after all:

Now, these two goals may not stand for much on their own, but keep in mind just how wasteful Thomas has been. He’s taken 26% of our goals from open play but has produced only 8% of our expected goals. That’s 30 shots taken with just four on target and…no goals. As we return from the international break, I’m sure we’re all just as thirsty for goals as Thomas is. We have, after all, only scored five league goals in seven matches. Thomas has been instrumental in orchestrating the defense and marshalling the midfield. He’s even lacerated opposing defenses with those line-splitting passes. We’ll have to wait ’til Monday to see our lads take to the pitch again—but that will be against Crystal Palace, managed by none other than Patrick Vieira. The good news come from none other than Orbinho, someone who normally plies his trade in obscure negativity. That said, I’ll close with his tweet:

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…

Arsenal vs. Southampton: Diaby the Destroyer's debut

All he did on Saturday was sit on the bench, an unused sub, for ninety minutes, watching as s a team that barely resembles the one he joined in 2006. Ironically, in a squad already ravaged by injuries—Giroud, Debuchy, Monreal, Walcott, Gnabry, and Sanogo have all been ruled out—Abou
Diaby may seize his chance. The league cup, already lower on our list of priorities, may have dropped even further as those injuries have forced us to refocus on the Prem and Champions League for now, and the FA Cup in January. We’ll likely see a squad full of starlets and debutants, but the 28-year old Diaby may be poised to destroy the Saints even if the league cup is for them is their best bet at silverware.

Yes, I know that the Saints are off to a bright start despite having lost Chambers, Shaw, Lallana, Lovren, Lambert, and Pochettino to other clubs, but a quick glance at their early fixtures suggests that this is about where they should be, turnover or no: a 2-1 loss to Liverpool, a 0-0 home draw over West Brom, a 1-3 win over West Ham, 4-0 over Newcastle, and a 0-1 win over Swansea. Some nice results, to be sure, but none of them jaw-dropping as each of the aformentioned will likely finish mid-table or lower—including Liverpool, unless they can right the ship in short order.

Speaking of Liverpool, it was ’round about two years ago that Diaby delivered a stunning, masterful performance, eviscerating the Liverputians at Anfield in September 2012. He played like a manic, hyperkinetic spider, seemingly able to ensnare any ball and thread any pass in an epic, man-of-the-match performance. It was the Diaby we’ve been led to believe we’d see, an heir of sorts to Patrick Vieira, who can boss the midfield and orchestrate the attack, and shut down the opponent. This was the “SAS” of Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling, at home, and they were, um, toothless, due in large part to Diaby’s performance.

He was bold, dynamic, rugged, wise; he showed few if any signs of rust or reservation. For those looking beyond him to who he played with, well, it was a squad that we might half-expect to see in a league cup third round: Podolski, Ox, Vermaelen, Jenkinson and Mannone, with Santos subbing in, and Coquelin, and Damian Martinez on the the bench. Yes, there were also more-familiar names, like Giroud, Cazorla, Arteta, Gibbs, and Mertesacker, but it shouldn’t take too much of a leap of faith to imagine that Diaby is capable of reprising his performance on that day.  While we’re on the subject of squads, I imagine we’ll see a lot of rotation, perhaps to the point that only two or three members of the first team start. Ospina should make his debut behind a back four of Bellerin, Chambers, Hayden, and Coquelin. Ahead of them, Flamini and Diaby, then Wilshere with Campbell and Rosicky wide, and Podolski or Akpom through the middle (assuming we can get back to a 4-2-3-1, thanks very much). Amidst that blend of youth and experience, I’m picking Diaby to shine in all of his gangly, helter-skelter glory.

After all, it’s not as if Southampton come in hale and hearty. They’ll be without the services of James Ward-Prowse and Maya Yoshida, each of whom subbed off against Swansea with ankle injuries this past weekend. New signing Toby Alderweireld looks like he’ll also miss out, as will Sam Gallagher and Jay “no, I didn’t sign with Real Madrid” Rodriguez. Still, if their squad selection in the second round against Championship side Millwall is any indication, Southampton do intend to make a deep run into this tournament, and I’m sure Koeman will do his best to name a strong squad for Tuesday.  Even if he does, I foresee Diaby leading a confident charge, reclaiming, perhaps for good this time, the kind of form we’ve only occasionally been lucky enough to witness—the kind of form that that raises eyebrows and drops jaws.

Do it, Abou.