Wherever Moussa Diaby plays for Aston Villa, he carries happy memories of his childhood on his back. He wears the No 19 shirt, a nod to the 19th arrondissement of Paris, the place he called home as a boy raised in the northeast of the city. “I like the number because I want to show my friends and my family there that I’m always thinking about them,” he says. “I have to say thank you to this arrondissement because I grew up with a lot of people who continue to follow and support me. That is why I will never forget this area.”
It is a shirt number he has worn since joining the then Serie A side Crotone on loan from Paris Saint-Germain as a teenager. He took it at Bayer Leverkusen, where he announced himself as one of the most exciting emerging talents, prompting Villa to make him their record signing in the summer. At PSG, however, the club he joined aged 13, there was a minor hurdle. “I think Lassana Diarra, a big player who also played for Real Madrid, had the No 19,” Diaby says, breaking into a smile. “I was only young and I couldn’t talk about swapping numbers ... I just wanted to play.”
As a child, one of 10 siblings of Malian descent, the prospect of playing for PSG on the European stage felt a distant dream. “A little bit difficult, but not impossible,” he says. Until Diaby was invited to be a ballboy at Parc des Princes for a game against Lille aged 15, he had never set foot inside a major stadium.
That memory prompted Diaby and his France team-mate Youssouf Fofana, who grew up in the same district, to invite children from their old neighbourhood to their Europa League playoff matches in Leverkusen and Monaco, their respective clubs, in February. Diaby, Fofana and the Marseille midfielder Amine Harit grew up around the corner from each other and played for Esperance Paris 19eme, where Diaby’s coach was his long-time adviser, Losseni Sy. “We tried to invite as many kids as possible,” says Diaby. “It was nice because when we were in this area, no one came to invite us to watch a game like this. If I can give something back to the area and the kids, I will do it. It is good for the kids, because you can dream.”
That determination has fuelled a rise that has shown no sign of stopping since Diaby arrived at Villa Park, which is proving quite the fortress. On Wednesday, Villa gave Manchester City a bloody nose, overwhelming the champions to extend their winning home run to 14 matches – equalling a record they last managed in 1930-31 – and leading Pep Guardiola to declare Villa title contenders. On Saturday, Unai Emery’s side welcome the league leaders, Arsenal, whose visit should provide third-placed Villa with a sense of their ceiling – if, indeed, there is one. Beyond domestic matters, they are favourites to win the Europa Conference League and, in the back of Diaby’s mind, he knows a strong finish to this season could pave the way to earning a hotly contested spot in France’s Euro 2024 squad.
It was in the diverse, inner-city surrounds of the French capital, near Rue du Maroc, where Diaby honed his skills. At the local park he would also play futsal, basketball and volleyball. There were plenty of distractions, too. “I did good things and not-so-good things,” he says, grinning. “I went outside without my parents, I would say I’m going to a friend’s but I would stay outside and play with my friends ... I cannot say everything.” There arrives again that broad smile.
For Diaby, there is a need for speed. He considers his most obvious attribute innate but it is one he has learned to harness – with a little help from Kylian Mbappé. “He wants to win everything – even in [PSG] training, he always wanted to score. He told me: ‘You have to use your speed.’ I tried to use his advice and I have improved. You have to learn when you need to use it. The older you get, the more you know your body and mind. He helped me with my positioning and also to give me confidence to attack with my quality ... I think we have similar qualities, with our pace.” Who is quicker? “Him,” Diaby snaps back, laughing.
Diaby has certainly hit the ground running at Villa. He scored the first of his four goals for the club on debut at Newcastle and registered his fourth assist by expertly supplying Ollie Watkins for a 90th-minute equaliser at Bournemouth last weekend. Diaby, who has settled with his young family in Sutton Coldfield, concedes he knew little about Villa before signing but his compatriots Lucas Digne and Boubacar Kamara offered him a potted history of sorts.
Diaby is self-deprecating about his English but he completes this 40-minute interview without a hiccup. Digne, Clément Lenglet and the Belgium midfielder Youri Tielemans, who speaks French, can help translate at training if required. “I watched the Premier League before I came here and I saw the intensity of the game and the [physical] contact. I wanted to show I can fight with big players in this league. It is not easy. You have to be focused and ready to work every day.”
Diaby goes back a few years with the Villa manager. It was Emery who called him up to train with the PSG first-team squad during an international break while the forward was a raw 18-year-old in the academy. In his first season as a professional he was surrounded by stars: Mbappé, Neymar, Marco Verratti, Thiago Silva and Marquinhos. Then came Gianluigi Buffon. PSG’s cast list has changed a little since but Emery remains as demanding as ever.
“If you score five goals in a game, he will say you need to score six in the next one,” Diaby says. “He is not hard on the players but he tries to push you all the time. He wants you to give your best every time. We can learn a lot from the coach.”
The 24-year-old had two choices in July: sign up to Emery’s Villa revolution or join Cristiano Ronaldo at the Saudi Pro League side Al-Nassr, who matched Villa’s €60m bid. Diaby is one of few players known to have rejected a lucrative move to the Gulf.
“I decided to come here for the project. I spoke with the coach and that’s why I wanted to come here. I also wanted to play in the Premier League because I never had before. In terms of Saudi, I spoke with my agent and my family but my first idea was to come here because I wanted to play against big teams and everybody knows the Premier League is the best league in the world.”
It is also Diaby’s route back to the biggest stage. Villa, who finished seventh last season, have not hidden their desire to break into the top four this campaign. Emery spelt out his desire to elevate Villa into Europe’s elite as part of his sales pitch. Put to Diaby that others in Villa’s position might prefer to pour cold water on in-house targets at every opportunity, his response is telling. “When you have confidence, you can talk about everything,” he says. “If you want to go into the top four, you have to have confidence in your team-mates and coaches. I think this team can fight for the top four and to play in the Champions League next season.”