Last week, Manchester United and France midfielder Paul Pogba gave an interview to Canal+. One of the questions he was asked was which midfielders he thought were better than him. As to be expected, Pogba responded by reeling off global stars like Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, Luka Modric, Andres Iniesta, Toni Kross and Yaya Toure, but it was the Frenchman’s final name that raised an eyebrow or two.
This name was Abou Diaby. Remember him?
Speaking on Diaby, Pogba said, “Box-to-box, he was exceptional but unfortunately, he had a lot of injuries. Look at him when he was he was at Arsenal — he was exceptional. People forget about him. In the France team, he was enormous. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. I won’t forget him, I learned a lot from him.”
Pogba’s answer got this writer reminiscing about Diaby and the promise he once had when he arrived at Highbury all those years ago. Of course, Pogba was right, injuries did cut down Diaby and stopped him from going on and living up to his outstanding potential. So let’s take a look back at the career of the man who many assumed was the heir to Patrick Vieira in the Arsenal midfield, and what could’ve been for the French powerhouse.
Vassiriki Abou Diaby was born in Paris, in May 1986, and raised in a Parisian suburb. The young Diaby became interested in football after watching the 1998 World Cup, where he became fascinated by the formidable French team who famously won that year.
After impressing for local underage teams, Diaby was selected to attend the renowned Clairefontaine academy. As Diaby’s time there was coming to an end, many clubs in France were beginning to scout the promising midfielder. Diaby signed for Auxerre and joined the club’s academy in time for the 2002/03 season.
Diaby continued his development with the Auxerre academy, helping the club to win underage titles before being promoted to the reserve team for the 03/04 season. He signed his first professional contract before the start of the 04/05 season and would make his professional debut later that season. Diaby’s first two seasons as a professional were halted by niggling injuries and manager Jacques Santini decided he was surplus to requirements halfway through the 05/06 season.
Cut Down in Sunderland
While Auxerre management had lost faith in Diaby, another manager with a knack for developing young players came calling. Arsène Wenger had been watching Diaby’s development and saw the 6ft 4in midfielder as one for the future. Diaby signed for Arsenal in January 2006 for a fee of £2 million.
He began life in North London brightly, making 16 appearances in his first season with Arsenal, helping the club make it all the way to the Champions League final, however he wouldn’t get the chance to play in the showpiece game. In early May 2006, Arsenal were playing away to Sunderland with the Gunners cruising to a 3-0 victory when Diaby was caught with a tackle on the ankle by Sunderland’s Dan Smith. Diaby was stretchered off the field screaming in agony.
It was later revealed that Diaby suffered a fractured ankle and ruptured ankle ligaments and would be out for nearly a year. Diaby had three surgeries to repair the injury and was told by doctors that the injury could put a stop to his burgeoning career.
Don’t Call It a Comeback
After eight months out injured, Diaby returned to the Arsenal first team in January 2007 coming on as a substitute in a League Cup match against Liverpool. Diaby’s return during the 06/07 season was mostly in substitute appearances as he continued to regain match fitness and put the devastation of the ankle injury behind him.
With a pre-season under his belt, Diaby would go on to make a big impression during the first few months of the 07/08 season as Arsenal stormed to the top of the league table. The highlight during this time was an absolute thunderbolt in a victory over Derby County. As Arsenal faltered in the second half of the season, he suffered a thigh injury towards the end of the season; this thigh injury would be the beginning of the muscular problems that would ultimately stifle his career.
The thigh injury Diaby suffered at the end of the 07/08 season hampered his preparation for the 08/09 season and he didn’t make his first appearance until October. Despite that early setback, the Frenchman went on to have a great season for Arsenal, scoring four goals and making over 35 appearances that season. Diaby would go onto have his most successful season for Arsenal in 09/10 becoming a regular starter alongside Cesc Fabregas in Arsenal’s midfield. After this impressive season Diaby was selected in the French squad for the 2010 World Cup, Diaby started in all three matches for Les Blues, as they were knocked out in the group stages.
Diaby then began the 2010/11 season impressively, however, injuries began to mount up and he ultimately suffered four muscular injuries over the course of the season. During the summer of 2011 Diaby underwent ankle surgery to fix persistent pain in his ankle. Diaby made his return in late November 2011 and only a few days later suffered another muscular injury. Diaby would continue to suffer muscular injuries to his calf and thighs as the 11/12 season ended.
Diaby began the 12/13 season fit and played in all of Arsenal’s opening games. Sadly a month into the season he suffered a thigh strain which ruled him out for four months, another calf injury would further halter his progress yet again, and then in March 2013 he would tear his anterior cruciate ligament ruling him out until 2014.
Diaby only played two more games for Arsenal after rupturing his cruciate, once in May 2014 and one League Cup appearance in September 2014. After that League Cup match Diaby would suffer a calf injury that would rule him out for the remainder of the season, and that was the last we would ever see of Abou Diaby in an Arsenal jersey.
The End for Diaby?
Arsenal released Diaby in June 2015 after 9 years with the club, and he then went on to sign for boyhood team Marseille in July 2015. The midfielder suffered another injury early into his Marseille career preventing him from making his debut until March 2016. Early into the 16/17 Diaby was forced to have more surgery on the persistent pain in his ankle ruling him out for the season. He was released at the end of the 16/17 season, and gave an interview to Canal Football Club in September 2017 in which he reiterated his desire to play football again. Despite this, he remains without a club.
Ultimately Diaby never achieved on that initial promise he showed all those years ago and while he did show glimpses of becoming the player Wenger thought he could be, it just wasn’t to be, while Diaby will be mostly remembered for never achieving on that potential he has made use of his profile as a footballer in an amazing way.
Diaby set up the Abou Diaby Foundation which aims to tackle poverty through jobs and opportunities, to give breadwinners the dignity of earning a living and not having to rely on handouts in countries throughout Africa and Asia. Even though his football career didn’t hit the heights that it could have, it is heart-warming to see that he is using the money he earned through football to help disadvantaged people throughout the world — and if that is what Abou Diaby is best remembered for, than it is a damn good thing to be remembered for.