Why France might change for Diaby

Abou Diaby has been compared with Patrick Vieira ever since he joined Arsenal four years ago. The similarities were there for the laziest of observers to notice: their club, position, lanky gait, marauding runs and ability to recover the ball like a diver looking for pearls.

Like Vieira in 1998, Diaby looked as if he would be going to his first World Cup as a substitute. However, his last three performances from the bench against Costa Rica, Tunisia and China have been so pulsating and full of drive that they have led to calls for him to be given a starting berth.

Almost 90 per cent of L’Équipe readers feel he deserves such a chance, crowning the appraisal Arsène Wenger gave in February that his protégé is “going step-by-step higher and higher.” Diaby made 40 appearances for Arsenal this season, the most since his transfer from Auxerre in 2006, and also scored seven important goals.

The physical frailties that marred his first three years in England, the nadir being a fractured and dislocated ankle that required three operations, finally appear to be behind him.  “I'm a lot more rigorous in the physical sector and less lax in training,” Diaby admitted last month.

The 24-year-old has always been a prodigious talent. He started his career as a No.10, but found competition from Hatem Ben Arfa at the National Institute of Football [INF] in Clairefontaine, which may have contributed to a much-scrutinised scrap.

Rush of young blood: click to watch

Diaby was moved deeper, but the experience helped him. Claude Dusseau, his mentor at the INF, said: “It’s simple. Abou is the hybrid player par excellence. At the INF I made him play on the right. Abou didn’t like it at all.

"Yet he went on his merry way without a fuss or any soul-searching. It was at that moment that he became conscious of his qualities. He then progressed at a crazy speed.”

Guy Roux, his former coach at Auxerre who had Diaby for just 10 games in Ligue 1 before Arsenal came calling, naturally agreed with Dusseau. “He’s the kind of player that catches the eye of football experts straight away. It’s not something you can explain, it’s like being drawn to the charms of a beautiful woman.”

Former Arsenal team-mate Kolo Toure has a less flattering nickname for Diaby, calling him ‘The Spider’ because he spins his web all over the pitch.

The question for Raymond Domenech is whether the rise in Diaby’s stock will be enough to force a change in his plans. Diaby came on for Malouda on Friday night, playing on the left of midfield in France’s much-discussed 4-3-3.

If he were to start there, Domenech would move Malouda to the left-hand side of France’s attack and face the unenviable task of asking Franck Ribéry to swap flanks and play on the right, something the Bayern Munich star has complained about in the past.

The second option, advocated by former Nantes boss Raynald Denoueix, isn’t exactly palatable either, as it involves dropping Yoann Gourcuff.  “I would rather see Gourcuff replaced,” he said, “because the Evra-Malouda- Ribéry triangle works well.”

However, what Denoueix ignores is that the triangle often gets congested and renders France more predictable, whatever the individual talent available on that side of the pitch. 

Domenech could yet change the system, like he did four years ago when he swapped a 4-4-2 for a 4-2-3-1 on the eve of the finals because of Djibril Cissé’s injury against China. However, too many chops and changes could leave France at risk of death by a thousand cuts.

“Domenech mustn’t change the system,” insists Christophe Dugarry, who believes that the experimentation should have started two years ago and not two weeks before the World Cup.

Naturally the best person to ask about Diaby and his place in France’s team was Vieira. Speaking to Canal +, the Manchester City midfielder went with option No.1. “For the good of the French team, I think that Ribéry must sacrifice himself and play on the right because it’s the team that should come first and it’s the team that benefits from the change.”

That would mean dropping Sidney Govou, who has operated as a first defender protecting Bacary Sagna rather than offering anything in attack – which is partly to blame for the imbalance between the left and right going forward.

Diaby’s reputation as a “hybrid midfielder par excellence” would bring steel and silk to the midfield; Gourcuff would benefit from having another player with defensive qualities beside him, but he wouldn’t lose one who’s technically gifted in the final third either, as Diaby’s assist against Costa Rica showed.

The remaining training sessions will reveal whether Domenech intends to make the change. Diaby’s inclusion would be welcome against Uruguay on Friday, but as his former mentor Dusseau says: “He alone can’t revolutionise the team’s play. He needs to be given time.” 

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