Direct, fast, productive, How Diaby adds a new dimension to Villa

5 minute read

Aston Villa supporters haven’t felt this level of optimism for a long time. The resurgence under Unai Emery last season, which culminated in Villa’s European qualification for the first time in 13 years, was built on an almost-perfect 2023. Their summer activity so far has done nothing to temper excitement at Villa Park.

The Premier League form table since 1 January has Villa in second. That is proof, if needed, that they are on the steepest upward trajectory in the division at the moment. Indeed, the calibre of the three players signed so far this summer - Pau Torres, Youri Tielemans and Moussa Diaby - suggests Emery’s side have not yet hit their ceiling.

Beyond providing Villa with the depth they will need for the Thursday-Sunday schedule, the trio are of a similar profile that fit with Emery’s tactical ideas: a ball-playing centre-back, a line-breaking central midfielder, plus a fast and direct winger.

Diaby, in particular, stands out. A club-record signing from Bayer Leverkusen, he is the sort of coup Villa fans could not have dreamed of 12 months ago.

He is a statement of the club’s ambition, of the pull of Emery, and of Villa’s potential to close the gap on Newcastle United and make a push for the top four.

A quick winger with a final product

There haven’t been many players in German football more exciting to watch than Diaby over recent seasons. He is an extremely quick winger with an explosive turn of pace and an eye for goal; a player seemingly able to run with the ball just as fast as he can without it, ready to take on a player with a burst of speed and attack the opposition goal as directly as possible.

His dribbling skills are captured in the statistics. Diaby had 10 shots from fast breaks last season, more than any other player in the Bundesliga – or at Villa, for that matter. Diaby also ranked 16th in the Bundesliga for total take-ons attempted (105) and 11th for successful take-ons (51).

He completed the second-most carries into the penalty area in the competition (55) and the second-most progressive carries (125), reflecting just how often Diaby looks to run straight forward with the ball at his feet. The 24-year-old is by no means a subtle player.

Often this kind of player can lack an end product, but Diaby is increasingly effective in the box. He has hit double figures for goal contributions in each of the last four Bundesliga seasons, recording nine goals and eight assists in 2022/23, slightly lower than his career-high 13 goals and 12 assists the season before.

Despite the drop, Diaby is actually moving more central and taking more shots over time, becoming increasingly influential inside the area. His Expected Goals (xG) of 11.0 last season was higher than his 2021/22 figure of 8.0, while his shots per match increased from 1.73 to 2.63.

Significantly, his 110 shot-creating actions last season placed him 11th in the Bundesliga. Diaby is an electric winger with a consistent capacity to produce shots or create chances.

Perfect fit

Diaby could be a crucial missing piece of the jigsaw for Emery who, broadly speaking, wants his team to attack as quickly as possible, transitioning at breakneck speed when the ball is turned over – or creating his own “artificial transitions” by luring the opposition forward when Villa have possession at the back.

How Diaby assists a traditional counter-attacking approach doesn’t require further explanation, although it is worth highlighting why his positional play will fit in at Villa.

Diaby prefers to cut infield from the right wing on to his favoured left foot, generally playing in the column of space between full-back and centre-back, making clever runs arcing into this zone to receive through-balls. Even when playing on the right, he pops up in these positions on both wings.

Diaby touch map v Schalke April 1 Diaby’s touch map v Schalke in April 2023 reflects his willingness to cut infield from the flanks to receive through balls

Emery’s 4-2-2-2 formation, with two wingers drifting infield, presents plenty of opportunity to do this, especially given its lopsided nature - often one Villa winger moves infield to join the two central midfielders while the other, Leon Bailey, gets close to Ollie Watkins. It helps that Diaby can play up front or on either flank.

Diaby’s attacking positions 2019-2023
Position Percentage minutes played
Right-back 2%
Right midfield 3%
Left midfield 7%
Right wing 44%
Centre attacking midfield 2%
Left wing 34%
Striker 6%

* Total minutes played 13,087

Moving near Watkins and receiving the ball in the gap between a traditional right winger and striker role, Diaby can lead Villa’s counter-attacks as well as their artificial transitions, which appears to have been the focus of Emery’s summer recruitment.

Among midfielders, Tielemans ranked 16th in the Premier League last season for progressive passes per 90 (6.96), reflecting his unusual tendency to attempt to cut through the lines. Tielemans was the driving force behind Leicester City’s verticality in the peak years of Brendan Rodgers, when sideways possession was rare and Tielemans was expected to take risks with the ball.

Torres, meanwhile, is one of the most adept ball-playing centre-backs in Europe. According to FBRef, among players in the same position in Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues over the past year, Torres is in the 99th percentile for progressive carries (2.24 per 90) and 96th percentile for progressive passes (5.81 per 90).

Put all this together and Villa now have a player in all three lines who can improve their ability to pass around the high press (Torres), pierce quickly into the forwards (Tielemans), and then gallop at speed into the final third (Diaby).

Diaby’s defensive concerns

The only possible concern for Villa is that Diaby performs poorly on defensive metrics, although the relevance of this has been exaggerated.

However, Leverkusen did not press very aggressively, preferring to sit a little deeper and play on the counter-attack, which loosely conforms to what is expected by Emery. Villa attempted the fifth-fewest final third tackles in the Premier League last season (77) and the fifth-fewest interceptions (324).

What’s more, Diaby may not rack up high defensive numbers, but there is no reason to assume he will not be able to learn the intricacies of Emery’s demands on positioning and when to apply pressure.

Villa fans have no reason to worry about this side of his game; Emery has improved virtually every player at the club since his arrival last November.

If he can do the same with Diaby, taking an already high-end attacker to another tactical or technical level, then Villa’s record signing will more than justify his price tag.

See:Analysis of 2023/24 summer signings