What Makes a Good Squad Player

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.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

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 Diabyless than a minute ago via yoono Favorite Retweet Reply

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.
If these are the types of reserves that Premier League clubs aspire to have on their bench then the question of Diaby's status as a viable top flight player can be evaluated by his ability to firmly fit into one of these categories.
  • 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.
While it looks like I am going to declare that I was right all along, I am open to the idea that Diaby isn't miscast as a top flight reserve overall, just that he is miscast as a reserve for a team like Arsenal that is trying to win the league and is very deep in central midfielders who are above Diaby in the pecking order.  I could be convinced that there are teams in the top flight that would view him as an excellent option off the bench in the Type 3 or Type 4 situation described above.  His injury history and his wages might be impediments to a club lower down the table actually trying to make such a move but given that the original comment was more around ability than external factors like wages, we'll let them slide for now.

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


  1. diaby, along with quite a few arsenal midfielders, just do not offer anything. they are there because no replacements have been sought or found. rosicky, denilson and diaby are the worst.

  2. Great post Neal. One of the traits that puts you above many other writers is that you give in depth explanations for both sides of the argument and then explain how you came to form your own personal opinion. Keep up the good work.

  3. Diaby is definately one area that we have spoken too much about over the years...Just like Diarra...Diaby future does not lie in the Premier League...especially not at Arsenal...Next Topic Please

  4. Anonymous4:48 PM

    Shay Given to Aston Villa. Another great option, on top of DeGea.


  5. In my opinion, Diaby has way more quality than a Denilson or a present-day Rosicky. His stay at Arsenal has been a bit misleading. Between injuries and the 953 minutes Vassiriki played I think you al are being extremely hard on him. His country is still France, and the last time I checked they are NOT giving away national team spots, especially to Frenchmen of colour. The season before he played 2319 minutes, had two yellow cards the entire season not one red. Now you all want to reinvent him as one who, "commits too many rash fouls"...what's that all about? One game this season...at best huh? I do agree, he appears to be out of position. The worst for him is he has Wenger as a coach, and he is not a very creative coach. bendtner nor Chamakh would have ever really seen much time off the bench if it were me. I would have played Diaby as a Rooney like striker. He is rather decent with the ball at his feet I hate to disagree, he is remarkably good in close spaces and plays the ball cool. I'm pretty sure that Mr. Williams or yourself mean well but probably haven't taken his national role and how he plays the position he is with their team. Not to mention the fact that their team is in disarray and awful at best right now. Now couple that with the fact that a diminished Rosicky weighed on Arsenals neck like an Albatross. Playing Nasri and several other players out of position didn't help either.


    We are still in the days of coaching where if a manager say play wide you play wide it's not like trying to fly a chopper as opposed to a jet.

  6. And oh yeah, I only left the zonal marking link for you to see the analyzation and especially the comments. A disiplined player will sometimes look out of position if he's taking one for the team. And as far as questioning his skill level, that was just ridiculous. The dude is faster than the average player and is very comfortable on the ball. I will agree that he is a player that is NOT as versatile as he may give the appearance of being.

  7. @manamongst - I appreciate your comments. I'm not sure I agree about Diaby as a Rooney-like striker. I'm happy to concede that Diaby has his moments. That said...

    It seems that you disagree with some of the ways I reached my conclusions related to his skill on the ball but here's the thing, he isn't as good on the ball as the alternative attacking/central midfielders at Arsenal (Cesc, Nasri, Wilshere, Ramsey). That means the conclusion is still the same - he may be good enough to play as a reserve in a different role for someone in the Prem but not for Arsenal.

    Other food for thought...
    1) You dismiss his injury history like it isn't integral to his value to his team - I might have an entirely different view of him and his place as a potential starter in the league if he were healthy consistently. He's not and it is part of who he is.

    2) You assume that all bad fouls result in YCs or RCs - I watch a LOT of Arsenal matches and certainly enough to know his poor decisions and rash fouls aren't limited to just those. He has moments that leave you wondering why he isn't great but they are balanced out by the sorts of brainfarts that make you wonder how he can be playing professionally at any level.

    3) You crush Wenger as uncreative and Arsenal as in disarray/awful-at-best - your points of comparison can only be Barca, United, Chelsea, City, Real, and the two Milan clubs (maybe Bayern as well) because even with all of the upheaval Arsenal are performing above just about everyone else at the club level in Europe. Their "disaster" is only by their standards and those of a few other elite clubs, you can show me no performance-based evidence that puts say Spurs or Liverpool above them domestically despite this so-called disaster.

  8. @Manamongst - One additional thought, if we're taking performance for country into the equation then Rosicky has to come back into the equation. He's a MUCH better player internationally than Diaby ever has been. Not sure why it never translated to the club level but it didn't either in Germany or at Arsenal. Injuries might similarly play a part along with the role he's asked to play in the two situations but regardless just because a player is good in one situation doesn't confer identical capability in the other (see also Scholes, Paul and Gerrard, Steve in reverse).