Lassana Diarra: The feel-good story Premier League clubs need to continue this summer
By Pete Sharland
This summer Lassana Diarra is expected to line-up in the French midfield as they contest the European Championships on home soil, but the journey hasn’t been an easy one.
10 years ago Diarra was named as Chelsea’s Young Player of the Year, and the future seemed extremely bright.
Half a year later he helped the club win the League Cup, and then eight years ago was part of the Portsmouth team that won the FA Cup, getting called up to France’s Euro 2008 squad as well. Six months later the dream path was complete when he joined Real Madrid.
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At that stage it looked like Diarra was set to be one of the best midfielders for club and country for the coming years. However after slipping down the pecking order at Real, he eventually moved to Russia, where things turned sour.
After being part of the ill-fated Anzhi project, he moved to Lokomotiv Moscow, where he fell out with coach Leonid Kuchuk in 2014.
No-one heard from Diarra for 15 months after that; he wasn’t able to sign for another club because of his contract dispute with Lokomotiv, so trained with clubs through friends and old contacts. He used his own money to hire a personal trainer to stay fit, waiting for a chance.
Lassana Diarra went into the football wilderness after he left Lokomotiv Moscow.
That chance came last summer when he was finally allowed to join a new club, taking the brave step as a Parisian to join Marseille. He was signed alongside Abou Diaby, but both were instantly written off as free signings made by a desperate club short of money.
Whilst Diaby has fulfilled many of those negative predictions, Diarra has proven everyone wrong; he’s been nothing short of a revelation.
Sitting at the base of the Marseille midfield, Diarra has been excellent, arguably the Player of the Season in France outside of those playing for the all-powerful Paris Saint-Germain. This season in Ligue 1 he averaged 2.96 successful take-ons and 2.58 tackles-per-game. The latter stat, combined with his 46 interceptions, is to be expected, but it’s the former that makes Diarra such an attractive proposition.
Diarra’s average duels this season in Ligue 1.
Ever since he first started coming through, his size and position has seen him labelled the new “Claude Makelele”, and whilst this is partially true it’s also unfair to Diarra. He’s so much more than a simple ball-winner, as his ability on the ball at least outstrips the man whose footsteps he could’ve followed.
He’s comfortable with the ball at his feet and can easily beat a man to create space. He can play short, intricate passes to get out of trouble, as well as longer ones to set up counter-attacks. He may have only scored once this season in the league against Troyes, but what a goal it was.
Diarra is a proper defensive midfielder; he can orchestrate things from deep and this is the role he should fulfil for France. He’s better defensively and positionally than Yohan Cabaye and Morgan Schneiderlin, while there isn’t really much difference in terms of technical ability. In this French side Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi are the match-winners in midfield. Diarra is the wall which allows them to do their thing.
But what about at domestic level? Whilst Diarra signed a four-year contract, he recently revealed there was a break that allows him to leave should Marseille fail to qualify for European football, which has happened. Speaking to L’Equipe recently, Diarra not only confirmed that he’s likely to leave, but added that he would be open to a reunion with Jose Mourinho, who’s expected to be named as the new Manchester United manager.
“I am a free agent, there is a clause in my contract that allows me to leave if we did not qualify for European football. I do not want to enter a war with Marseille and I don’t think there will be one. I hope Marseille will stick to their word.
“I will never forget Marseille and the fans, who showed me a lot of affection. I do not know yet where I will play next season. I am calm about my future, there’s time. I have not signed for PSG. Mourinho? I know him well. I have enjoyed some great times with him. He is a coach I really like. But we will see what happens next season.”
Diarra and Jose Mourinho during their Real Madrid days.
Diarra is still just 31, and has at least three or four years left at the very top as his reading of the game will compensate as he starts to get slower. Available on a free transfer, he has to be worth considering for Premier League clubs this summer.
Perhaps a club like United would be a step too far, particularly given that Diarra will be best off when he can play regularly, but for clubs just outside the Champions League spots he could be perfect.
He could be the defensive presence that Liverpool need to allow Emre Can to flourish further forward, or alternatively if West Ham United want to add some more experience to their side he could be a very shrewd addition. Squawka understand that Tottenham Hotspur want to sign Victor Wanyama this summer, and although Diarra wouldn’t have re-sale value like many of Southampton’s signings, he would be a very astute replacement.
The key thing is that any side that brings Diarra in has to be prepared to make him one of the focal points of the team. He quickly became the heartbeat of this Marseille side, as of the 12 league games that he missed this season his team only won once.
Any sensible club will move quickly to try to seal his transfer before the Euros, as this summer’s tournament could be his breakout and see interest rise.