You hear it said relentlessly, you rightly disagree, but when you look at Samir Nasri, you know you think of a hairless adolescent more than a 23-year-old.
When you stare at Tomas Rosicky, your sister’s instead of your brother’s friend springs to mind and when you look at Theo Walcott, you wonder – like Jack Wilshere – how he is still not in the backseat of his class.
You could also carry Andrey Arshavin on your back and while in the scenario of having to pick a fight with either the pair of Pires & Edu or Fabregas & Denilson, you would jump on the latter.
None of these players are actually ‘boys’ on the pitch (not by their ability on the ball at least) and as a matter of fact, they are improving their physicality year by year, but while the likes of Nasri and Rosicky are not entirely ‘push-overs’ for defenders, their boyish stature is why our line-ups hardly appear as a group of ‘men’ to critics.
Arsenal’s beautiful football and discouragement of dirty tactics on the pitch has seen them become the ‘gentlemen’ of football these days. That is no crime – a virtue in fact – but being too gentle sees aggression utilized against you and it becomes a necessity to alter styles a bit when the going gets tough.
Arsene Wenger’s obsession with skill over grit in recent years has seen him lure the likes of players who are more accustomed to dribbling past opponents than shoving them over to retain possession. That is an encouraging philosophy. After all, the game is about who is best at flair and not feistiness.
Even so, those attributes have to be balanced to make a capable team, and flair has quite outweighed grit in Wenger’s sides of today to the extent that a clash with Stoke City or Blackburn has become as much of a trial as any confrontation with rivals Chelsea or United.
Blessed with a pool of artistic but lightweight options of attacking midfielders, the sight of the imposing Abou Diaby is ever so refreshing in Arsenal’s line-ups. For once a player without the habit of being forced to the ground when in possession and a man who can actually bully and not be bullied.
Yes, Diaby’s first touch can sometimes be as heavy as a mistaken pass while he is no Vieira-like defensive midfielder to lessen Alex Song’s toil but when the team attacks, he does prove as formidable as his legendary countryman.
Whether it is through shrugging off his opponents with authority or dribbling with no fear, Diaby’s opponents hardly ever steal the ball back when the Frenchman is in the mood – like he has been more often than not ever since Wenger stopped deploying him uncomfortably on the left wing and handed him start after start last term.
During the campaign that just passed, Abou’s muscle in the side was vital in games like Liverpool away, Stoke away, West Ham at home and even Birmigham away (despite the result). Likewise, his physical force was well missed in games like Chelsea at home and United at home where our title rivals proved that having Thomas Vermaelen and Alex Song as the only ones close to ‘men’ in a side might see you pass, dribble and dribble but make no substantial threat.
And I recall when Diaby returned for the game at Stamford Bridge, which ended in a less humiliating 2-0 loss, Arsenal’s midfield showed far more guts (remember us dominating the second-half?) and that should have taught many the fact that Obi Mikel and company looked like a breed of ‘Hulks’ only because most of our team appeared as ‘oompa loompas’.
So Diaby agreeably possesses Arsenal’s much-needed power in midfield, but Abou (when he does get himself into the box) also appears to be rich of that ruthlessness the side begs for in front of goal. Take another look at most of his goals in recent seasons and Diaby seems to be quite a ferocious and accurate striker of the ball as well as a sharp finisher too.
Most of Arsenal’s trickery midfielders are criticized for their habit of over-passing the ball when goalscoring chances are at the offing, but on most occasions that Diaby enters the 18-yard box, he shows the swagger of Lampard. Hitting the target truly is one of Diaby’s qualities considering how he tested Shay Given with the match’s first shot on target in April’s 0-0 draw with Man. City – an effort which derailed Given’s shoulder and perhaps his reign as No. 1 at Eastlands.
Robin van Persie (and perhaps Arshavin), another true dead-eye finisher, is the only one I could imagine attempting something as audacious as Diaby’s half-volley against Blackpool recently. He has time and time again delivered the killer touch of a classic attacking midfielder when he finds sight at goal and with his physical presence a scarcity in Arsenal’s midfield, Diaby is more important to this team than you may assume.
If Fabregas, Nasri, Rosicky, Wilshere and Arshavin all shared Abou Diaby’s mixture of vigor and skill, the Frenchman would not have started all games this season.
Pick on him for his defensive unawareness, pick on him for those misplaced passes here and there, pick on him for that own-goal at Old Trafford but while you are at it, please pick out who else does this…