Who should take over as Patrick Vieira’s long-term successor? That question has taxed France fans for a number of years, but an answer may finally be emerging in the shape of Arsenal midfielder Abou Diaby. His size, style of play and ability to surge forward from deep midfield positions instantly recall the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ winner, who likewise preceded Diaby in the Gunners first XI.
Born in the suburbs of Paris, Diaby graduated from the French national training centre in Clairefontaine as a member of the generation of prospects born in 1986, a class that also included Hatem Ben Arfa and received national exposure due to a documentary that followed the youngsters until they signed professional terms. Diaby was picked up by Auxerre, but despite being handed his Ligue 1 debut in 2004/05, he made just ten appearances in the next two-and-a-half years.
Eager for more playing time, he signed for Arsenal in January 2006, going on to make a promising start for Arsene Wenger’s men until a serious injury kept him out of action for eight months, most notably denying him a role in the 2006 UEFA Champions League final against Barcelona. Recurrent injury concerns continued to plague his progress after his comeback, but he impressed whenever fit and reminded Arsenal fans what they had most admired about Vieira - a commanding presence in front of defence combined with a natural authority further forward.
Those same qualities earned Diaby international recognition in every age group as he honed his talent, before he was rewarded with a first senior cap in a UEFA EURO 2008 qualifier against Lithuania in March 2007. The midfielder then followed up his debut with an appearance in a friendly against Austria, but although he has become a squad stalwart he has not kicked a ball for Les Bleus in the last three years. Still only 23, however, he has plenty of time ahead of him to make the Vieira role his own.