PROSPECT | Moussa Diaby

After another two assists against Werder Bremen during matchday 26, Bayer Leverkusen’s Moussa Diaby continues to excite fans at BayArena with his consistent brilliance. With his blend of pace, power and trickery, it’s difficult to see why French champions PSG let the 20-year-old leave for such a small fee last summer especially after his solid break-out year in France. After only 20 appearances for Die Werkself though, the deal to bring the young Frenchman across the German border already looks to be another smart bargain for Bayer Leverkusen.

After making 25 first-team appearances for Paris Saint-Germain during the 2018/19 season, it was extremely surprising to see the French powerhouse part ways with winger Moussa Diaby so early on in his development with the club. Granted, PSG now boast one of the best attacking sides in Europe with Neymar, Kylian Mbappé & Co. consistently bringing home the Ligue 1 title, but at 19 when he joined Leverkusen, few saw Diaby’s departure coming at Parc des Princes.

Part of PSG’s academy since 2013, after he moved from local side Espérance Paris 19ème at age 13, Diaby grew up like many other French footballing stars on the streets of the French capital. As a youngster, Diaby excelled during his early years with the PSG academy, often playing in higher age groups due to his natural ability. His talent truly grew in 2016 when the winger was awarded the ‘Titi d’Or’, an accolade given to the club’s most promising youngster. With such a prestigious award under his belt, his transition from academy to first-team squad seemed close.

Despite widely impressing in the French champions youth academy from an early age, his senior break would at first come elsewhere.

The 2018 January transfer window saw Diaby join Serie A Crotone on a short-term loan. The loan spell didn’t work out for the Frenchman, his appearances for the Italian side were infrequent as they battled against relegation from the countries top-flight at the time. The highlight of the loan spell coming with his senior debut in April 2018 against Genoa.

Upon return to France, his breakthrough into the PSG first team would come with his debut against AS Saint-Étienne in late September 2018. Coming on at half time to replace veteran midfielder Lassana Diarra, Diaby scored in the 86th minute to complete a 4-0 rout on the night. His debut in the first team further propelling his career in the French national set-up as he graduated from the U19 level where he made 16 appearances to the U20 age group. With dual-heritage due to parents of Malian descent, Diaby is still eligible for the Malian national team but it is widely expected that he will make his full French debut in the very near future if he keeps his classy form up at Leverkusen.

It was clear to see that Diaby grabbed his first-team opportunity with both hands last season and by the end of his breakout season with Les Parisiens, the young Frenchman had made 25 league appearances, 10 of which had been starts under manager Thomas Tuchel. Diaby ended the season with two goals and six assists, with many fans and pundits alike expecting him to kick on in France’s capital for the foreseeable future.

It wasn’t to be though, his time alongside Neymar and Mbappé in Paris was cut short and in June 2019, Diaby moved to BayArena for a fee in the region of €15 million. Despite stating that his former PSG boss promised him more game time with the French club it’s clear to now see that Diaby wanted to emerge from the shadows of Neymar and Mbappé in Leverkusen: “Thomas Tuchel wanted me to stay. He promised me that I would develop well under him and that he would give me enough playing time. I would also like to have stayed in Paris – but then my chances would have had to improve significantly,” he said after his transfer. “I am a young player who urgently needs to play regularly. I want to improve as fast as possible. Therefore, I have looked elsewhere and did not want another loan.”

Signing a five-year contract with Die Werkself when he joined, Diaby has gone on to become one of Leverkusen’s most consistent and important players this season highlighted by his many stand-out performances in the Bundesliga to date. His transfer has further kept with Leverkusen’s recent tradition of signing young players early in their development who can contribute to the first team straight away and have the potential to return big profit for the German side when eventually sold on in the future.

This transfer policy is evident at Leverkusen with the purchases of Diaby, Paulinho, Exequiel Palacios and Edmond Tapsoba in recent times amongst others. The transfer was viewed in the media as a coup at the time and his arrival was greeted fondly by Leverkusen sporting director Simon Rolfes who stated: ”Moussa is an extremely quick, technically gifted attacker whose qualities are perfectly suited to our playing style. He’s one of France’s most talented players and he’s got the ideal conditions here in Leverkusen to develop into an absolutely top-class player.”

It’s fair to say that Diaby has so far enjoyed his time in Leverkusen. Diaby himself admitted to struggling in the early months of his career in Germany due to the language barrier and his own poor performance in training but since then his development under Leverkusen boss Peter Bosz has been mesmeric. The Frenchman enjoyed a rousing debut in the first round of the DFB-Pokal this term away at Alemannia Aachen where he logged an assist from the bench and went on to score in his first Bundesliga start against Freiburg back in November. His pace and trickery has terrorised many a defender in the Bundesliga to date with it being a key factor that has seen him score five goals and assist on eight occasions in 27 Leverkusen matches across all competitions to date.

His statistics look even better when you realise that he has only started on twelve occasions in the Bundesliga this season. The French winger offers much-desired versatility for Bayer and Bosz, often been used through the middle behind the striker or deployed out on either wing when needed. His presence can be felt all over the attacking third when he’s on the pitch. 

Diaby’s world-class dribbling and control make him stand-out in the German league. His incredible pace means he regularly breaks the defensive line whilst his close control means defenders have a torrid time trying to dispossess him without giving fouls away. In fact, during this season Diaby has clocked the second fastest sprint speed in the Bundesliga, measuring an incredible 22.3mph. His outstanding close control means he is an expert in tight spaces and has no trouble retaining possession in the presence of multiple defenders. This season the French forward has attempted 2.8 dribbles on average in the Bundesliga, putting him third on the list of average dribbles per 90 minutes in the competition behind Bayern’s Thiago and Alphonso Davies who both average three.

Diaby further possesses fantastic end product for a modern-day winger. With the ability to breeze past defenders, the young French forward gives himself plenty of time to pick out the final ball which he usually does with great conviction. On average per 90 mins, Diaby delivers 4.18 crosses per game, his crossing has become a rich source of goals for Bayer this season. As seen as recently as this week, Diaby’s first assist at Werder Bremen came with a calculated deep cross onto the head of Kai Havertz after taking on the opposing full-back. His second assist for Mitchell Weiser also came from a cross highlighting just how effective his cross accuracy has been this season for Die Werkself. In fact, when you compare him to other wingers of a similar age in the Bundesliga, he normally comes out on top. For example, Diaby boasts a better accurate cross percentage than Jadon Sancho, who has 17 assists this season, despite playing nearly 1000 minutes less match time.

His display against Werder was arguably his strongest to date for Leverkusen and his teammates were quick to lavish praise on him at full-time, Lukas Hradecky and Kerim Demirbay lauding his performance to press. Hradecky stated to the official Bayer Leverkusen website: “with his pace, Moussa can be a really, really big factor in our attacking game,” whilst Demirbay added “he’s not only a very quick but also very clever player and you don’t see that very often in the Bundesliga.”

His praise in recent months has not been limited to his teammates with German legend and Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Völler recently stating: “I’m sure Moussa Diaby will provide us with great joy thanks to his speed and technique in the future.” For Diaby, it truly feels like the sky is the limit in terms of ability and development at BayArena and under boss Peter Bosz, The young Frenchman has the skill set to become one of the best wide players in the Bundesliga, if not the whole of Europe.

With his flawless blend of pace, power and trickery coupled with his proven ability to provide that crucial final ball for Leverkusen, Moussa Diaby could yet still help Die Werkself to win silverware this season for the first time in many years. If not, with his huge potential and presence in the side, Diaby could prove to be the deciding catalyst for the German side in their quest for future domestic and European glory.

Nathan Evans.

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