Farewell Abou Diaby, Arsenal's ultimate 'what if' footballer who should have been a world champion
What might have been?
On Monday night, Abou Diaby called it a day as a professional footballer, bringing an end to a career that featured glimpses of glory and a whole lot of pain, both physical and mental.
"It was time," he admitted. "For a number of years, it has been difficult for me to come back. I decided to stop simply because the body was not following. It is a closing chapter. A new one opens.”
Having made just 198 appearances during a senior career that spanned 15 years, Diaby's lasting legacy will be one of wondering 'what if?'.
What if he hadn't constantly broken down injured? What might Arsenal have achieved? Where might he have ranked among the world's best midfielders had he been able to fulfil his abundant potential?
A quick control+F: 'inj' on Diaby's Wikipedia page returns 39 results. He became synonymous with being sidelined. What was a story of promise very quickly become tragedy after the 2009/10 season, when his time at Arsenal peaked with a series of driving displays, seven goals and - most significantly - 40 appearances.
Following that peak, his Arsenal career began to drift from the medic's bench to the subs' bench, as he gradually became the club's forgotten man. He has played eight matches in the past six years: two for the Gunners and six for Marseille.
Every return from injury was greeted with cautious hope by fans who knew it was only a matter of time before it happened again. He was never truly back.
But let's explore that 'what if' question. What if Diaby hadn't suffered such a terrible string of recurring injuries?
He would probably have featured in France's World Cup winning squad last summer as one of the more experienced members of the squad, for a start. He would have become a central figure in Arsenal's midfield, providing the impetus they so famously lacked for years.
He might even have fought his way into the discussion around Premier League all-time greats. Perhaps that sounds like optimistic revisionism, but I defy you to go back and watch videos of Diaby in the late noughties and tell me he didn't have the potential to go all the way to the top.
There is a myth that Arsenal never truly replaced Patrick Vieira after he left for Juventus in 2005. They did, with Diaby. The similarities with Vieira go beyond nationality and physique. The way Diaby carried the ball, casually shrugging off opponents and personifying the term 'box-to-box' made him the ideal successor to the long-serving Arsenal captain.
The player they never really replaced was Gilberto Silva, but that's by the by.
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) February 25, 2019
As so many former Arsenal players tend to do, Diaby leant on the shoulder of coach and mentor Arsène Wenger, who so easily could have lost patience and discarded him. But Wenger cares for his players as people first and foremost, as shown by his homage to the midfielder following news of his retirement.
Wenger told RMC: "I am sad that you are finishing your career. It is strange because last night I was asked about you and this tackle from Sunderland that hurt you so badly and I spoke about your courage and strength that you showed to come back.
"Unfortunately, you were not maybe able to express all the talent that you have. But I am sure that you will have success in whatever comes next. I hope it for you, thank you and I wish you all the best for the future.”
Diaby leaves the game as a symbol of the unfulfilled promise that has defined Arsenal in the modern era: all the tools, all the talent, but simply breaking down too often.
His playing career is one of constant heartbreak, let's hope his post-retirement ventures grant him more opportunities to express all of his talent.