Tom Goom is a physiotherapist and Gooner. He loves Arsenal, cheese and shooting thirty yards over the bar. He hate grass munching, racist centre halves, and former Manchester United strikers who look like Black Beauty’s ugly diving younger brother.
This week, the grisly details of Abou Diaby’s ankle injury:
May 1st 2006. Injury time at the Stadium of Light. Arsenal lead Sunderland 3-0. Dan Smith hits Abou Diaby hard with an over-the-ball challenge, studs down onto his right shin, just above the ankle. It is immediately obvious something is wrong but somehow Diaby manages to limp off, his right foot hanging at an odd angle as the physio helps him to the sidelines.
In the media furore that follows, the usual dialogue takes place; one side deplores the “horrendous” tackle, the other insists “he’s not that kind of player“. That’s all been debated ad nauseum, and my aim isn’t to go into that but rather to look at the impact this has had on what was a blossoming career.
Diaby suffered a fracture dislocation of his right ankle. It is common in these injuries for both tibia and fibula to break, sometimes in several areas. We don’t know the exact details, as football clubs rarely release them – it is, after all, confidential patient information. When the ankle dislocates there is trauma to the surrounding ligaments as well as the bone and ankle joint. The pictures below show normal anatomy (A and B) and potential effects of a fracture dislocation (C and D).
In Diaby’s case, he had three separate surgeries to repair his injury. It is likely that this included an ORIF (Open Reduction Internal Fixation) of some description, depending on the nature of his injury.
I see these fractures regularly where I work as a physiotherapist, and they can be challenging to rehab. The nature of the trauma causes a lot of swelling and stiffness in the ankle joint. It is quite rare for a patient to recover 100% range of movement in the ankle, even with intensive treatment. The fact that Diaby was able to return to action nine months later is a great credit to Arsenal’s excellent medical team. He made 28 appearances in all competitions in 2007-2008 and by 2009-2010 that number rose to 40, before he featured for France in their disappointing 2010 World Cup. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Diaby has reportedly had 29 injuries since 2006. On average a player would expect two injuries per season. He has, on average, had around five per year and faced lengthy layoffs, playing just 20 times in 2010-2011 and featuring just twice this season.
Diaby’s most recent absence has been down to the surgery he had on his ankle this summer. Again few details have been released by the club, but it is possible he had the original metalwork removed, as this can cause problems. That said, professional footballers often have this removed at a much earlier stage. On returning to action Diaby has picked up a hamstring problem that has ruled him out again. I can only imagine how frustrating that must be for him.
It is easy for us as Arsenal fans to criticise Diaby or the Arsenal medical team for his repeated injuries. Many have the attitude that we should “get rid“. I think though that the blame lays clearly at the severity of the initial injury and not its management or Diaby’s ineptitude. Or blame John Terry. Maybe Diaby re-injured his ankle when he volleyed Terry’s hideous concrete block of head?
More likely though is the long term effect Diaby’s injury will have had on his ankle and how that affects other areas. One of the most important movements of the ankle is dorsiflexion (see picture for details). We need this for so many functional movements; walking, running, squatting, lunging and many activities that involve impact. Unfortunately it’s very hard to fully restore after this type of injury. Side to side movement (inversion and eversion) is also essential. When we balance on one leg the ankle can adapt by moving one way or the other allowing fine control of balance.
Without these movements it becomes harder to balance and the body often adapts by placing more stress on the knees or surrounding muscles. This may be why Diaby has had knee, calf, hamstring and groin problems since his injury. In addition, if the ankle is forced into a position where it is stiff, during a tackle or striking a ball for example, there can be further injury to the ankle.
So, what does the future hold for Abou Diaby? My hope is that with a gradual return to first team action Diaby will be able to reach the level he did in 2009-2010 where he made 35 starts for Arsenal. Five years of persistent injuries though makes me wonder if this will ever be a realistic outcome. For his sake I really hope he can make it. At 25 he still has time on his side to fulfil some of the potential we’ve seen from him at his best.