I may well be in the minority when it comes to getting excited about a defensive midfielder, and while I would never expect a 30-year old joining a mid-table Premier League side to bump talk of England off the back pages, Fulham fans will surely not be the only ones fascinated by the arrival of Mohamadou Diarra.
Diarra has rubbed shoulders with Raul, Cannavaro and Roberto Carlos and was part of one the most formidable midfields French football has ever seen, and now he will be bringing his vast experience, and tremendous football ability to West London with a few more years of great football left in him yet.
If those in the Hammersmith end need to know what kind of player they have on their hands they should cast their mind back to the early 2000s and a Lyon team that were simply untouchable in Ligue 1 terms. That was much in part to a midfield which included Diarra, Michael Essien, Florent Malouda and set-piece specialist Juninho Pernambucano. Providing the steel in front of Cris, Edmilson and company, he was the gritty master at breaking up play and negotiating the ball back to the players that could hurt teams in such a devastating fashion.
Alongside Emerson, he helped to fill the Makelele-shaped void in a Real Madrid team under the stewardship of Fabio Capello, and while the two were the equivalent of a brick wall in front of the Madrid defence, they also symbolized a type of football that was no so favourable to the club hierarchy or supporters despite the success. They could not deny that Diarra went about his job in such an effective manner and proved crucial to the team’s La Liga success.
Players of his quality don’t end up on a free transfer without a good reason, and Diarra has been without a club since last summer. Last stop was Monaco and a side who had been uncharacteristically flirting with the wrong end of the table in past seasons. The provincial side looked resigned to dropping into the second tier of French football for large periods of the campaign and Diarra could not do much to stop the slide. Injury reduced Diarra’s appearances in the team and Jol must be weighing up whether he can throw a player into the first team fold, who has had such little match time in recent months. If that early opportunity to cement a first team place does present itself, he will be tasked to provide protection for Hangeland and Aaron Hughes just as he has done so effectively for Lyon and Real Madrid, allowing Danny Murphy to dictate further ahead and concentrate on bringing the likes of Dembele, Dempsey and Ruiz into the game.
Dickson Etuhu will be the most worried at Diarra’s arrival. The Nigerian played the defensive midfield role so impressively under Roy Hodgson, and despite both players sharing similar instincts to win the ball and to keep their passes short and simple, the Malian’s title-winning credentials gives his game an extra dimension.
Martin Jol’s side currently sit eleventh and boast a defensive record which is on par with Newcastle and Arsenal who sit in the top six, five places above Fulham. Neutrals would probably argue that it’s up front where the side need strengthening, but Jol would have been foolish to pass up the opportunity of securing a player of Diarra’s undoubted talents.
Fulham are fortunate to have some of the most exciting young forwards in the league and with someone like Diarra providing the defensive layer in front of an ever-present back four, he could be the difference between mid-table mediocrity and mid-week trips to Europe for Fulham next season.