As they prepare to host the European Championship next Summer, France continued their winning ways with a simple 4-0 victory over Armenia.
Didier Deschamps has the French playing with real verve in attack and steel in defense, but has yet to find the perfect balance in midfield. The former Juventus midfielder can call on the likes of Paul Pogba (out injured on the day), Blaise Matuidi, Yohan Cabaye, Morgan Schneiderlin and Geoffrey Kondogbia (funnily enough, all four of those midfielders have been linked with Arsenal for years).
But on the day, Deschamps decided to hand a starting berth to a surprise inclusion. No, it isn’t Francis Coquelin (who’s yet to play for the senior side), but former Arsenal midfielder Lassana Diarra!
Now plying his trade for Olympique Marseille, Diarra’s shock return to the national team has alerted everyone to what Ligue 1 viewers have known for well over a month – Diarra is back. Having wasted the last three seasons of his career in Russia with Lokomotiv Moscow and Anzhi Makhachkala (including sitting out the entire 2014/15 season), the now 30-year-old is eager to make up for lost time.
But things could have been so different for Diarra and Arsenal. Yes, yes, he played for Arsenal, but you likely won’t be able to conjure up an image of him in the famous red and white because he played a grand total of 667 minutes — the equivalent of 7.41 complete games. Let’s break it down:
- Started 7 games — Arsenal won 5, drew 1 and lost 1 (a 2-1 loss to Middlesbrough)
- When he was on the pitch, Arsenal scored 15 and conceded 6 goals
- According to Transfermarkt, he was bought from Chelsea on transfer deadline day in 2007 for £2.03m, but sold in the January transfer window for £4.9m
- Arsene Wenger, le Dictator, promptly pocketed that money because that’s what people on Twitter insist he does
These are nice little tidbits, but don’t really mean much. I remember Diarra being a very nice player, but it made sense why he played so little because we had Mathieu Flamini, Arsenal legend.
Yes, Flamini might be a bit of a joke now…
The Arsenal team is Shite anyways, they're starting Flamini, Arteta & Campbell.. Come On Ladss Carroll > Flamini.
— Mikael (@Mikael_Thfc) September 23, 2015
…but then again, he did manage a double against Tottenham Hotspur…
Ok, so Flamini’s powers have diminished quite a bit (he’s 31, after all), but back in 2007 him and Cesc Fabregas were an incredible duo. Fabregas was at the height of his powers, a midfield maestro woven from the La Masia tapestry, but reinforced with British grit, while Flamini was, actually, quite a bit like Coquelin, albeit he was also a competent passer, had good technique and could also score a screamer here and there.
That 2007/08 Arsenal side is the best Arsenal side since the Invincibles, in my opinion (though this current iteration ain’t so bad either). They would finish third in the table on 83 points, just four points behind title-winners Manchester United. We all remember the 2-2 draw against Birmingham City, William Gallas’ meltdown, and Eduardo da Silva’s sickening injury at the hands (or feet) of Martin Taylor, and every Arsenal fan still wonders “What if?”
But the ride wasn’t meant to last. Diarra was shipped off in January, and then in a cruel twist of fate, Flamini departed that July for AC Milan on a free. They were a bigger club back then, could offer Flamini larger wages and were still very prestigious. Within a space of six months Arsenal went from having incredible depth at defensive-midfield to starting Denilson and converting Alex Song (who was still nominally a ball-playing centre-back) to the position. Arsenal would finish 4th in the 2008/09 season on 72 points, a whopping 18 behind United.
What if Diarra had been patient and stayed? His playing style has aged very well because he’s consciously crafted his game around Claude Makelele’s. Coquelin has gained plaudits for his brand of balls-to-the-wall defending, but Makelele was all about repelling attacks, not sledging them with a hammer. He was positionally perfect and oozed technique to guide his team forwards. Diarra isn’t his equivalent, but was a fine midfielder in his own right, having made over 100 appearances for Real Madrid. It’s easy to imagine Diarra making the position his own and guiding Arsenal to more respectable finishes (maybe even a trophy!)
Arsenal’s path towards becoming a selling club was probably inevitable (Alex Hleb left along with Flamini), but there is a non-zero chance that had Diarra stayed and helped Arsenal win a trophy (Arsenal made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League and FA Cup despite a poor league performance) he could have helped stem the tide of departures. Would Samir Nasir, Emmanuel Adebayor, Cesc Fabregas, etc. have opted to stay? Who knows, but it’s an interesting question nonetheless.
Diarra probably has few regrets. He went on to win La Liga with Real Madrid and make plenty of money, but he’s effectively been irrelevant for three years now (his entire prime, more or less). Which is sad, because he was, and still is, a very good player. Just last week, he was dominant against PSG in a game Marseille should have won. His return to relevance is a stark reminder of his strange 5 month stint as a gunner and what might have been.