'Just like new signings'
That thud, thud, thud-ing you can hear is the collective sound of Arsenal fans' heads banging against brick walls, for this week manager Arsene Wenger pursed his lips and had the grapes to say: "We wait on Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere. In defensive midfielders and box-to-box players we are not short if they are all coming back." Yes, Wenger is willing to cross his fingers and rely on the fitness of two players who combined made zero Premier League starts in the 2011-12 season.
Diaby, 26, is a notorious crock. Signed from Auxerre for £2 million in January 2006, the lazy knee-jerk reaction was to dub him the 'new Patrick Vieira', based on his physical characteristics. Regardless of what type of player he is or could go on to be, the Frenchman arrived with raw potential. While indeed standing tall at 6' 2", he had the twinkle toes to juxtapose this stature, even evoking that vomit-inducing "good feet for a big man" cliche. Sadly for Diaby and Arsenal, though, his development would be stunted, the emerging shoots hacked back to soil.
In May 2006, Arsenal comfortably beat Sunderland 3-0. But as the game drifted into nothingness, Dan Smith let rip with a sickener of a challenge. "It was a bad kick and an unneeded one," Wenger fumed after the match, the steam coming out of his ears. "Players can damage their careers just because some players are on the pitch." Diaby was subsequently ruled out for nine months after being diagnosed with a fractured and dislocated ankle. Smith, meanwhile, presently plies his trade as a semi-professional footballer for Northern League club Darlington 1883.
Since Diaby's rehabilitation from said injury, the midfielder has exceeded 20 Premier League starts in a single season on just one occasion (2009-10). Yet interspersed with the hours spent receiving all manner of treatment, there has been evidence of a tantalising quality to make even the haters crack a smile. Take the goal he scored against Aston Villa in 2008, when he concluded a delicious one-two by rampaging from inside the Gunners' own half before spanking home. Alas, moments like these have been few and far between. Last season, when Arsenal's midfield was (again) stretched, Diaby remained on the sidelines, in the end featuring just five times in all competitions. The nadir came at Anfield when, after he had been brought on as a substitute, he was soon substituted as he demonstrated an all too familiar limp.
It is not Diaby's fault, but fans lose patience - especially amid reports he earns around £50,000-a-week. Even Wenger, a man with saint-like degrees of loyalty, appears set to take one last chance on the France international. "This tour is another decider for him," Wenger said ahead of the Gunners' trip to Asia. It could be theorised that the French coach's overall faith might well be wearing to its thinnest levels yet. This a man who, for a second summer in a row, has seen time invested in personnel come back to boot him in the face, with Robin van Persie's declaration a donkey kick that leaves Wenger all but toothless. Consider, for a moment, the trust invested in Van Persie that he would put his fitness woes behind him. Consider how the now-gummy Wenger must be aching.
The 20-year-old Wilshere's availability will also be relied upon for the 2012-13 season. Unlike the Diaby situation, this midfielder's superglued connection to the physio's table cannot be blamed on third parties. The gifted youngster was run into the ground in the 2010-11 campaign, his still developing muscles and joints strained to extreme, as he made 49 appearances in all competitions. When he limped off during last summer's Emirates Cup, on-lookers at the time perhaps had a nagging itch at the back of their minds they would not be seeing the England international for some time. A setback was suffered in January 2012, and still now it remains uncertain when he will return.
Wenger himself suggested this week that, though he could not make any firm predictions, Wilshere could be out beyond October, while the Independent newspaper offered a slightly more optimistic view that he "could be back in action next month". Whatever the truth, the conclusion is that to put the delicate Wilshere and Diaby-shaped eggs in one's basket is to invite the yellow stuff on the face. Hence, when Wenger says, "No [I am not interested]," when asked about Rennes' Yann M'Vila, supporters are up in arms, some even frothing at the mouth with rage - such is today's troubling habit to over-react. The manager was one "he's like a new signing" soundbite away from mutiny.
Certainly, the point is not that M'Vila is the answer to Arsenal's troubles, although he would, on paper, offer the defensive screen so often lacking. For all of Alex Song's fine attacking work last season, he was in turn foregoing his primary responsibility. Song has learned to untie his leash, and Wenger has no answer to this disobedience. No, the slinging of princely sums in the hope that quality sticks is not the solution, but an extra (working) body would help share the load. Particularly following news that Tomas Rosicky will miss the start of the season after surgery on an Achilles tendon.
Diaby will be given the chance to prove he's finally triumphed in the battle with his own body when Arsenal take on a Malaysia XI on Tuesday. He will be closely scrutinised for even the inkling of a wince. Should he come through unscathed, score 12 goals even, there remains the hope that a wave of clarity regarding the risk he is taking will wash over Wenger amid the humid Kuala Lumpur conditions. Last season Arsenal paid an almighty price for being underprepared come the beginning; to not learn from lessons so severely taught hints at an ignorance not befitting such an intelligent man.