I had an interesting interaction with a reporter/writer that I was not familiar with until yesterday. His name is Tom Williams and he can be found on Twitter at @Tomwfootball. His original tweeted premise, on the occasion of Patrick Vieira's retirement as an active player, was spot on.
Measure of Vieira's impact: players like Abou Diaby mistakenly typecast as defensive midfielders just because they have a similar physique.
There is an entire generation of lanky midfielders - mostly French or French-speaking West African - who have been labeled "next Vieira" while their managers, journalists and supporters attempt to push them into the "Vieira role", defined as box-to-box action with a heavy emphasis on the holding role. Not as holding-only as Makelele, but certainly far better and more focused on that role than someone like Pirlo or Alonso who is more deep-lying distributor.
As Mr. Williams indicates in his Tweet, it is a huge tribute to Vieira that the desire to find the next one of him caused managers to stop looking at a player's actual qualities and just assume that he should fit a certain mold. My response, which was perhaps a bit extreme but still valid at the core was that not only some players - most notably Yaya Toure - have been mis-categorized as holding midfielders by managers, the media, and supporters. There are also players, like Abou Diaby, who have been miscast as being better than they actually are because of the hope that they will eventually fulfill that "Next Vieira" promise.
@tomwfootball mistakenly typecast as DMs in the case of say Yaya Toure, miscast as top flight footballers period in the case of Diaby
Mr. Williams didn't think very highly of my opinion of Diaby as being "miscast as a top flight player" which got me to thinking about what makes a good squad player. I think we'd all agree (even Mr. Williams) that Diaby hasn't shown enough that even a bottom half team would buy him with the intention of him being a regular starter. Between injury and lack of consistent production (either attacking or defending) he just isn't as good as midfielders currently starting in the Prem. Higher up the table he wouldn't be rated as of high enough quality. Farther down the table, his abilities might shine a bit more in comparison to current starters but his inability to stay on the field for more than a few matches at a time would make him a poor choice.
In an effort to re-examine my reply to Mr. Williams' Tweet, I started thinking about what makes a good squad player in an effort to determine whether I over-reacted in saying that Diaby has been miscast as a top flight player (at least in England). Here's what I came up with as far as constructing reserves:
- Type 1: Young and Rising - From top to bottom of the league, teams try to have at least a few reserves in this category whether it be Chris Smalling/Rafael/Fabio at United, Wilshere/Ramsey/Gibbs/Walcott at Arsenal, Albrighton/Clark at Villa, etc. These players are characterized by being young, and very talented with plenty of upside left that appearances on the bench should start helping them tap into.
- Type 2: Veteran/Steady Presence - In contrast to the first type, this type of reserve has been there and done that and probably isn't physically up to playing 90 or even 70 minutes too often but still has something to contribute in a limited role. Vieira himself was a great example of this for Man City last season as is Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes at United, Campbell as Arsenal two season ago, etc.
- Type 3: Change of Pace - There are times that having a different type of player helps a manager match-up with a specific opponent (e.g., an extra tall/stout defender is a nice thing to have against Stoke's virtual basketball team) or late in a match. I think of players like Bendtner, Walcott, Carew, Zigic, Maxi, etc who come in and offer something not previously available to their manager (height, speed, etc.) in their usual starting group. They usually offer this additional characteristic at the expense of a well developed all-around game that would see them in the starting group more frequently.
- Type 4: Redundancy - Sometimes you just need more bodies than you have starting spots because the fixture list can get long and you want to be able to give your best players a break or need to replace them due to injury/suspension. United's ability to rotate Ashley Young/Nani/Valencia or Chelsea's depth at forward (Drogba/Torres/Anelka/Sturridge/Kalou) are obvious examples that could be categorized as either Type 3 or Type 4 depending on your point of view and the situation.
- Type 5: Versatility - There are players who may not be good enough to start at one specific spot in the Premier League but by virtue of their versatility have value potentially filling multiple roles in short durations off the bench or as a spot starter. John O'Shea has been the prototypical example of this type of reserve in recent years.
- Type 1 - This is definitely how he came into the team - lots of potential, playing more League Cup than first team, etc. He was firmly on the Wenger promotion plan. At 25 years old and 6 and a half years at the club, he can no longer really be classified as "up and coming" - not many players have the light click on this long after coming to a big club.
- Type 2 - I don't think even his staunchest supporter would consider Diaby to be a "wise old head" at this point in his career. He is too undisciplined with the ball, commits too many rash fouls, and seems to have a real talent for doing the wrong thing at just the wrong time when he's in the match in a big moment.
- Type 3 - While Diaby is definitely different from Arsenal's other central midfielders, I don't see him really offering that one exceptional characteristic that would put him in this category. He doesn't have a bomb of a shot from distance. He isn't particularly fast. He is tall but he isn't particularly good in the air at either end of the field. He isn't exceptional with the ball at his feet. In short, there isn't one skill that could be applied in bursts that makes up for his lack of all-around excellence.
- Type 4 - While Diaby is redundant to some other Arsenal players, Mr. Williams is correct in pointing out that Alex Song isn't the person he is redundant with. He would be better classified along with Cesc, Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosicky, Denilson, and to a lesser extent Nasri. The thing is that with the possible exceptions of Rosicky and Denilson, he is pretty far down this pecking order at Arsenal.
- Type 5 - As Mr. Williams pointed out in subsequent Tweets, Diaby ISN'T a holding midfielder. He definitely isn't a wide player. He can't really deputize as a forward. This means that he's pretty much a central midfielder which means that versatility isn't his key to a place in the reserves.
In the end, I must apologize to Mr. Williams for being at least slightly harsh in my comments about Diaby. I think the spirit of my criticism of Diaby is valid with respect to Arsenal but probably not with respect to the entire Premier League. That said, I'm sure Arsenal fans who have had to watch the reality of Diaby vs. the expectations set by Wenger understand my frustration and where my tendency to be overly harsh with him comes from.
Enjoy the weekend, Copa America knock out stages, and Women's World Cup Final.
Cheers - Neal