The post-January transfer window sigh of relief is probably the one emotion that is universally shared by football fans of all clubs across the country. Whether or not you landed that prized continental striker moments before the deadline, or begrudgingly lost the battle to cling on to a young academy prospect, everyone is simply glad of one thing; that it’s all over.
The constant turning of the ‘rumour mill’ (often a modern day euphemism for ‘journalist’s imagination’) can stop, the column inches no longer need to be filled, and everyone can, for four months at least, concentrate on the actual bloody football.
Trust Fulham, then, to be the ones to break this footballing modus operandi with the sudden announcement on the 27th February of a new signing. Not just any old signing either; as a former Real Madrid (signed for €26m) and Lyon player with multiple league championship medals on his C.V., Mahamadou Diarra has undoubtedly the richest pedigree of any of the current squad.
The immediate questions that sprung to mind were ‘how’ and ‘why’? The undoubtedly long and winding path from the Bernabeu to Stevenage Road certainly cannot be described as ‘well-trodden’, and the immediate assumption is that anyone who has walked down it must be carrying a considerable amount of baggage. In truth, Diarra’s career in recent years has seen a serious decline; having fallen out of favour at Real, he joined AS Monaco in January 2011 in a bid to revive his career. The move was disastrous for both parties; Monaco were relegated and Diarra was released with less-than-glowing reviews on both his performance and fitness levels. A trial at Doncaster in October which amounted to nothing suggested that Diarra was off the football radar for good.
With his arrival at Fulham met with a healthy if diverse mixture of intrigue, surprise and scepticism, Diarra was given a final opportunity to prove his talent – after all, how many times have we seen players apparently on the decline join us and completely revitalise their careers. And on the evidence of his contributions so far, you can add Diarra’s name to a list already containing the likes of Murphy and Duff. His confidence was evident from the moment he stepped on to the field against (an admittedly hapless) Wolves, helping himself to an assist, and several generally steady performances followed. As the weeks have passed his fitness has noticeably improved, and with it his performance level, and suddenly we seem to have a top quality defensive midfielder on our hands having not paid a single penny for him.
What is striking about the way Diarra plays the game is his astounding composure on the ball. He is almost metronomic in the way he receives the ball, looks up and moves it swiftly on, and the benefits to the fluid functioning of the midfield are huge. Another impressive aspect of his game is the way he always seems to have time on the ball, and this is of course no coincidence. His reading of the game, no doubt aided by years of experience, means he knows where the space is going to open up in midfield and is able to find comfortable pockets in which to receive the ball. His defensive game is all about positioning and timing of his tackles (again a consequence of his experience); he doesn’t go hunting the ball and charging into ferocious tackles, but is still very effective in regaining possession for the team.
All these attributes make for a pretty formidable player, and it is no surprise that he has forced his way into the starting eleven of late. In particular his recent performances against Bolton (in which he scored his first goal for the club) and Chelsea were highly impressive and also evidence of his flexibility. Having performed superbly with Dembélé in a midfield pairing against Bolton, he was used in a three-man midfield against Chelsea. Alongside Murphy, a combination that many thought would be either-or rather than both playing at the same time, were a joy to behold, outclassing the Chelsea midfield for large parts of the game. It was an interesting combination that we could be seeing more of in future, particularly away from home; having two players with such strong distribution should help us keep more possession and get a sturdier foothold in games when too often we are pushed on to the back foot.
Obviously, Diarra is not the perfect player; he is nothing like the physical specimen he was in his heyday at Madrid and, whilst he is certainly not ancient at 30, age is not on his side. Nevertheless, his addition to the squad has proved to be a very shrewd acquisition by Jol, who must be given great credit for spotting an opportunity where others did not. Diarra has an option to stay with us for next season, a clause that will surely be taken up, and when you look at how Murphy is still going strong at 35, there is no reason why Diarra can’t be an important player for the club for years to come. To think even five years ago that a player of such class would one day be donning the white shirt shows what incredible progress as a club we have made over recent seasons.