The Rebirth of Lassana Diarra – French Football’s Forgotten Man
There are few more impressive stories in European football this season than that currently being played out on the south coast of France. Consider 15 months ago, the name of Lassana Diarra had completely been wiped off the radar for even the hardened football fans and pundits.
Aside from a bizarre non-story about the France international popping up in the burnt-out and destroyed lands of Syria as a suspected Islamic jihadist, there was nothing after that. Diarra’s Lokomotiv Moscow adventure ended in a stalemate between player and club, before he endured a full year away from European football’s consciousness.
It seemed, then, a major shock when Marseille decided to take a chance on the 30-year-old who had not played a competitive game for a year. Coming with the arrival of Abou Diaby, everyone’s favourite injured footballer, it looked beyond bewildering.
But for all of Vincent Labrune’s sins, this one has been nothing short of a major success. And those signs were telling after a few short matches in the OM jersey. Shorn of months of match fitness but with a huge desire to hit the ground running, you could be forgiven for thinking that Diarra would be nothing more than a bit-part player for the club. But the impact was instantaneous. On his Ligue 1 debut against Troyes (surprisingly, 10 years after leaving France), a corner from the right was driven in towards the defensive midfielder out on the edge of the box, and he struck it perfectly into the top corner en route to a 6-0 win.
OM had worried about finding an adequate replacement for Giannelli Imbula. And here was one, who cost next to nothing, and has been a stunning revelation off the pitch, as he has been on it.
While OM have endured a most difficult start to the season with four wins in 12, Diarra has starred consistently at the centre of midfield. He has been commanding, picking off opponents with his brand of tough tackling. He has also to an extent helped bridge the gap between defence and midfield, providing great cover for the back four.
His passing statistics are excellent: 100% on his debut against Troyes (depending on who you believe), averaging out to 90% for the season. His hunger, stamina and determination have provided OM with the player that they’ve been yearning for some time – especially considering the limp outfield performances of certain players over the past few years.
Such displays, even in the face of uninspiring defeats like the results against Angers and PSG have shielded him from criticism. He has been the only OM player, probably alongside Michy Batshuayi, to escape the ire of the ferociously demanding and expecting fans.
It has earned him plaudits across France, including a joint-high four appearances in l’Equipe’s Team of the Week and a recall in France’s national team squad after a five-year hiatus. Many had previously poured scorn on Diarra’s comments about a possible Euro 2016 place upon signing for Marseille. Not anymore.
But it is off the field where Diarra has had the most impact. OM have been crying out for another leader on the pitch alongside goalkeeper Steve Mandanda. Other supposed leaders were either sold off, or were inadequate for such a role. For a young team it was important to look to a player with heart and passion, and it has had an effect.
Coach Michel praised the former Chelsea, Real Madrid and Arsenal man for his spirit, pointing out that he had not assigned him as a leader, but paid testament to Diarra’s own qualities in taking on the role.
The feelings are shared by the OM dressing room, with Nicolas N’Koulou describing him as ‘important’, and Abdel Barrada labelling him ‘positive for the group’.
It is one of the few shining lights on an otherwise poor season to date for the south-coast club. But Diarra will want to maintain his impressive form to claim an improbable place in the national squad for Euro 2016.
Six months ago, all of this was impossible. The fairytale might just continue for a man who has spent so long in the football wilderness.