It's taken a while for Moussa Diaby to really excel. In the first few months after his move from Paris St Germain last summer, the 20-year-old Frenchman, who became a father for the first time a week ago, had to be patient and settle into a new environment – both sporting and linguistic. Now the winger, with his turbo engine, is a real threat in the Werkself attack.
When the long-awaited debut came, it only took half a minute. 30 seconds from kick-off that proved to be thrilling and electrified the crowd. The ball was played to Moussa Diaby on the left flank with him facing two opponents. He made to move into the middle, played the ball forward with his left foot, pulled it back with the sole of his boot and then played it forward with his right foot – along the line. The two Freiburg players Jonathan Schmid and Brandon Borrello had difficulty keeping up and were left standing as Diaby raced at full speed towards the byline.
The bravely unorthodox action of the assertive novice did not produce a goal but after the final whistle Moussa Diaby had made a name for himself in the Bundesliga on matchday 12 on 23 November in the game against SC Freiburg. A murmur went through the crowd whenever the 20-year-old Frenchman started to pick up speed and they were absolutely thrilled when he placed a left foot shot into the corner of the net from 20 metres out to level the scores at 1-1. And they groaned in the second half when he rounded the goalkeeper and only had to tap the ball into an empty net but he lost his footing on the slippery surface and the chance to score the winner went begging.
That spectacular slip-up did not stop people talking about Moussa Diaby as a first choice player after his impressive debut. Opponents and teammates were full of praise. "I was afraid he would play against us as he made a positive impression when he came on at Wolfsburg the week before," said Freiburg coach Christian Streich and his central striker Nils Petersen was also very impressed: "He was incredibly dangerous and difficult to stop and he kept on posing problems." The media asked why Peter Bosz didn't play the young whirlwind from the start earlier on and instead played him for short periods in the first three months. The Werkself coach had good reasons for that: "We'll have to wait until his day comes. He's 20 years old, and does not speak German or English. He needs time to settle in and there's no point bringing through a lad like that too early. Then he'd play badly and his confidence would be lost."
Up to the brilliant debut against Freiburg, Moussa Diaby was in the squad for all 17 games but only came onto the pitch five times. Not a lot for somebody who was prised away from Paris St Germain in the summer and brought to the Bundesliga to get significantly more time on the pitch and it would with the star ensemble under coach Thomas Tuchel where he did make 34 appearances last season, scoring four goals and providing seven assists.
Moussa Diaby freely admits the careful treatment by his new coach was a little irritating. "The first months weren't easy. I had a couple of problems in training but I was very surprised to get so little time on the pitch. But the coach said to me I had to improve in two or three areas in training. I remain focused, worked hard on everything and then took my chance. Now I'm very happy," said the winger with Malian roots.
Diaby speaks softly and looks very gentle, almost shy in appearance, the exact opposite from his explosive input on the pitch where he has developed dramatic tempo. One of his rocket like sprints in January's home game against Fortuna Düsseldorf in the first half was measured at 35.95 kilometres per hour with only Dortmund's Achraf Hakimi being faster (36.52 kmph). "With his pace, Moussa can be a really, really big factor in our attacking game," said Bayer 04 goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky and Kerem Demirbay highlighted: "He's not only a very quick but also very clever player and you don't see that very often in the Bundesliga."
Communication between Diaby and his teammates is still a bit tricky because only the coach Peter Bosz, Jonathan Tah and new signing Edmond Tapsoba can speak French. "It's difficult when you can't talk to your teammates. A new club, new language, new city – that's not easy. And everybody knows how difficult it is to learn this language," said Moussa. In his regular German lessons at Bayer 04, basic words in football were first up in the teaching plan, "so that it's easier and better for me to understand my coach. Slowly we're going over to practising German that I use every day." And if there is a need for words and understanding then it's an not unknown for a translation app on a mobile to be used. "Sometimes you have to communicate and then we use that method. Jona isn't always there to translate," said Moussa with a smile.
The route to professional football for Diaby, who was born in Paris and grew up in arrondissement 19 in the north-east of the city, is initially like many other boyhood dreams: Kicking around in parks and playgrounds with his mates, Lionel Messi is his idol, his older brother registers the young Moussa at a club round the corner, Esperance Paris, where he plays for six to seven years. Then his development suddenly takes off. A representative from PSG offers him a sort of work experience at the club in 2013 and that soon developed into a contract for five years – two in the so-called nursery and three in the real Academy. The young Moussa, just 14 back then, is quick to learn, "having to show what I can do against lads who were all at an incredible level." Where he trained was where he also went to school with lessons and football constantly changing at the same place. Sometimes, he was unable to see family and friends for two weeks.
The quantum jump came in November 2017 when Diaby signed his first professional contract of his career at PSG. To get match practice, the potentially talented striker was loaned out to SC Crotone in Serie A for six months in January 2018. It was a picture postcard location in Calabria on the Ionian Sea near to the Gulf of Taranto. It was not a success story from a sporting point of view: In the battle to stay up, the coach opted for older and more experienced players and Diaby only made two appearances, once in the starting eleven in a 1-1 draw against Juventus and the club went down at the end of the season.
After returning to Paris in the summer, Diaby brought into the first-team squad by Thomas Tuchel after good performance in pre-season matches. "Moussa is very quick, able to learn and assert himself," said the German coach. The 1.7-metre tall sprinter also stood out at the 2018 U19 European Championships with impressive performances, one goal and three assists for France that saw him included in the Team of the Tournament. Under Tuchel, Diaby went through several steps the development of once and he made the following assessment of his patron in France: "Tuchel believed in me and gave me the chance from the start. He's convinced you only win games at the weekend if you show desire and passion every day in the training sessions. I've learned a lot from him and he told me Leverkusen is a very good club for me," said Diaby after his move to Bayer 04 last summer in an interview with spox.com.
The supportive trainer at PSG was one thing, the great teammates were another. Anyone working day in, day out with exceptional players like Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, Edinson Cavani and Angel di Maria will pick up something for their further sporting development free of charge. "You learn loads of things from them, above all as a young player I received and accepted lots of advice. With Mbappé, he always impressed me with his distinctive winning mentality. He's continually determined to score goals and even counts those he nets in training. And I got to know Neymar is a completely normal bloke without any airs and graces," said Moussa.
He still has some way to go to join the superstars but the six-time U21 international does have his eyes on the Équipe Tricolore. "I've not made it yet but that's my target. So I hope that I can put myself in contention here at Bayer 04," said Diaby. He is well aware that he needs to keep improving his game in certain areas: "I have already improved in certain points, for example regarding technique and game intelligence. But I do need to improve my first touch. It has to be very clean so that the chain of movements can continue properly."
Diaby currently has gold coloured short-cut, dark hair. Otherwise he also likes silver or pink. "I decide according to a gut feeling. It's whatever I feel like," he said and selected in answer to the question about the difference in living in Germany and France: "If I go for a walk in Düsseldorf, I'm not instantly recognised and approached. The people are cool. If I go for a walk in Paris on a normal day then somebody stops me every couple of minutes to take a photo. But to be honest, that was fun too."
It's not to be ruled out that that sort of meeting may soon happen more often here. "Voila! Yes, that could happen," said Moussa. "One day."