For the second time in three seasons, Aston Villa have signed a left-footed winger from Bayer Leverkusen.
This time, they smashed their record transfer fee for Moussa Diaby, reportedly to the tune of around £50 million, with the final number varying depending on the source. Villa fought off the deep pockets of the Saudi Pro League to secure the 22-year-old Frenchman. The questionable ethics of this bidding war where Saudi Pro League owners also have a stake in Premier League competitor Newcastle United is not lost on this author.
Regardless, Villa and Unai Emery got their man, but what exactly are Villa getting in Moussa Diaby, where does he fit, and was he worth breaking the bank for?
Let’s hop in our time machine back to the summer of 2021.
Remember the infamous Christian Purslow fan address where he declared Villa were replacing Jack Grealish with Leon Bailey, Danny Ings, and Emi Buendia? Ings didn’t last two full seasons, Buendia has sparkled in moments but lacks consistency, and “pacey” Leon Bailey who was supposed to leave Premier League full-backs in the dust has often looked overmatched.
Staying on Bailey, Villa paid a hefty £28 million for the Jamaican international. In his final four seasons as a regular at Leverkusen (ages 19 to 22), he had 46 goal contributions (28 goals and 18 assists) in 81 games. That’s a contribution every other game. In two seasons at Villa, he has totaled 11 goal contributions (five goals, six assists) in 51 matches played. Whether it’s injury or a step up in competition, Bailey simply has not been the player Villa thought they were paying for.
Frankly, if Bailey was playing to his 2021 potential, Villa wouldn’t need to sign Moussa Diaby.
Bailey’s lack of production has meant that Villa have often had two midfielders occupying winger roles in games where Bailey started on the bench. It’s worked for Jacob Ramsey on the left side but much less so for Buendia on the right. The overall result was Emery flip-flopping between his right-sided attackers and an overall lack of production from that area of the pitch.
Both Diaby and Bailey are inverted wingers, meaning they are left-footed and play on the right side. With his price tag and the Emery stamp of approval, Diaby gets dibs on that position. The question is whether Bailey will serve as his back-up or be transitioned to a left-sided winger in the absence of Ramsey at the beginning of the season. If Bailey does become the Diaby understudy, I could see Buendia being the stopgap on the left and given a chance to prove himself as a regular rotation player until JJ can get healthy.
So, we’ve got an idea why Diaby was signed and where he fits in the team. It’s time to crunch some numbers and see what he’s got going for himself. Here’s a quick blast of some notable
• Most progressive carries in the Bundesliga in 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, second in 2022-23
• 8th in the Bundesliga last season in xG, just a notch below Serge Gnabry
• Top 8 in the Bundesliga in assists three seasons in a row
• 5th in the Bundesliga in shots on target last season
In summation, he’s a player who thrives at picking up the ball in the defensive and middle thirds and driving at the opponent’s penalty area. When he gets into the final third he’s just as likely a threat to go for goal as he is to try and pick someone out, so he has balance in his goal/assist contributions. He puts himself in positions to score and most importantly, puts the ball on target when he gets the chance.
Here is a blind side-by-side Opta comparison of Moussa Diaby with another elite winger you’re all very familiar with. These are their performances graded against all other wingers (1 being the worst, 100 being the best).
The player profiles here are quite similar. Player B looks as though he’s a little more efficient in front of goal and picks out attackers at a higher rate, but the xG + xA tells us that Player A got a bit unlucky because he actually put his team into better goalscoring opportunities which weren’t converted with the same efficiency.
Both players are good at moving the ball up the field on their own, but Player B is much better at taking on the full-backs and going around/through them. They both put themselves in good positions to receive passes moving into the attacking areas and get into the box.
Player A is Moussa Diaby in Bundesliga play 2022-23.
Player B is Bukayo Saka. JUST KIDDING, it’s Leon Bailey in his last season for Leverkusen in 2020-21. Got you going there for a second.
Bailey was arguably better in his last season for Leverkusen when Villa signed him than Diaby was this past season. Coincidentally, they had the same number of goals and assists in those seasons (nine goals, eight assists). Have Villa gone out and basically paid an extra £15-20 million for Leon Bailey 2.0?
Not exactly. I think the major difference in the Bailey signing in 2021 and Diaby right now are the ceilings and floors for each player. Both are higher for Diaby. In the 2021-22 season after Bailey left Leverkusen and Diaby was handed his right winger role, he exploded with 25 goal contributions that season (13 goals, 12 assists) in 32 games. His level of play took Leverkusen from 6th with peak Leon Bailey the season before to 3rd and a Champions League spot. They got better when Bailey left because of Diaby.
His floor is also higher. He has never had a season without double-digit goal contributions and no fewer than 15 per season in the last three years. Bailey had two back-to-back seasons (2018-19 and 2019-20) of sub-par play at Leverkusen with only 14 total goal contributions in those two years, so Bailey’s struggles at Villa are not isolated.
This signing is not without risk, however.
Diaby does not play defence. He ranked in the bottom 5 percent of wingers in tackles, blocks, clearances, and aerials won last season. His “best” defensive attribute was interceptions, where he finished in the 11th percentile. He’s Kevin Hart-sized - 5’6” - and weighs less than I did as a middle school cross-country runner – 141 lbs.
I know Villa will possess the ball more this season than they have in a generation, but in games where Villa has the lead and need to knuckle down defensively and put in a shift, can Diaby be counted on to do his part? Short answer, no. I think we will see him subbed off in these moments for an extra midfielder. I also don’t see he and Matty Cash being a formidable defensive partnership on the right and against better teams they will certainly be tested. It’ll be something to have an eye on early in the season.
I was sold on Youri Tielemans as an excellent midfield depth piece (and on a free!). I was over the moon for Pau Torres and the immediate impact he can have breaking through opponent defensive setups with his passing and dribbling. With Diaby, I’m playing the waiting game. He looks excellent in highlight tapes (what winger worth his salt doesn’t?), but Bailey’s failure to launch in the Premier League has me tempering my excitement. I hope to look back and laugh at my trepidation to give Diaby my full vote of confidence when he bangs in 13 goals and is threading balls to Ollie Watkins.
Ultimately, though, three quality transfers in and the Villa squad is finally starting to take shape. Even if no more signings were to arrive, optimism should be at its highest in recent memory heading into 2023-24.