Ismaïla Sarr’s form as Watford were relegated from the Premier League in 2019/20 led to a great deal of interest from some of England’s biggest clubs. However, after Watford dug their feet in over Sarr’s asking price, he ended up playing a full season in the second tier – where he was among the very best players.
From the right side of Watford’s front three, Sarr was his side’s top scorer in what was a relatively low-scoring team to earn promotion. With 13 goals, he was the only Watford player to make double figures in that column, and he consistently showed he belonged back in the top flight. Xisco Muñoz, the Watford manager who oversaw promotion back into the Premier League, feels Sarr has what it takes to shine at the top level again. “He is a very good player, he’s a top player,” Xisco said. “Now is the moment for him to fight with the top players. When you play against the best, you need – if you are the best – to show everyone. If he performs to his best, (I’m) sure we will enjoy (ourselves).”
It is increasingly the case that wide forwards play on their opposite wing – on the opposite side to their stronger foot – so that they can cut in and provide a direct threat on goal rather than going around the outside to cross. Mo Salah, Wilfried Zaha, Marcus Rashford, Son Heung-min, Raheem Sterling, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Eden Hazard, are just a handful of top-class examples in the modern game. Modern wide players are increasingly more like inside forwards than traditional wingers.
Sarr is unusual in that he is a right-footed winger who plays on the right – but he also does far more than just run towards the byline and put a cross into the box. He manoeuvres himself intelligently to beat opponents and uses his huge stride and devastating pace to run diagonally towards goal. He still, therefore, provides more of an immediate and direct threat on goal than traditional wingers do.
A Senegal international signed from Rennes in the summer of 2019, Sarr gets in behind opponents with remarkable consistency. Through playing on his ‘natural’ side he is comfortable retaining his team’s width, and he can help his team attack with an asymmetrical front line with a right-footed left-winger – such as Emmanuel Dennis at Watford – more inclined to move infield.
Sarr progresses beyond opposing defences through two favoured methods – either by timing runs to meet passes from teammates (above) or by taking heavy touches beyond a defender when one-on-one. He frequently looks on the verge of losing possession with one of those heavy touches, but his acceleration and his large stride means he can deceive his opponent and get to the ball first. He can therefore draw a defender towards him with what looks too heavy a touch but still retain the ball and skip past his opponent if they have committed too early.
The big touches Sarr takes (below) are not examples of poor control, but rather calculated attempts to draw an unwitting opponent in. His close control can be brilliant, so when he receives in a tight space, he can quickly control the ball, and because defenders know what a threat he is if he has space to run into, they are reluctant to get too close to him in case he skips away from them with a quick pass before demanding a return ball or by dribbling past his direct opponent.
He has also improved when receiving with his back to goal, taking a touch to draw an opponent in, and spinning out with the ball to attack the space behind that opponent (below). His awareness of where challenges are coming from is impressive.
He has made occasional appearances as a centre-forward, a position from which he is a consistent threat in behind, but his finishing and composure both need to get better. He has improved in both regards since his last stint in the Premier League, and both will get even better with age and experience, but he on occasion can be guilty of rushing his shots.
One reason he could suit a move to a bigger team is that he has the energy and intelligence to press effectively high up the pitch. He is effective on the rare occasions he is able to press for Watford, and takes up clever positions when out of possession that make more likely to win the ball.
Role for Watford
Sarr’s main threat comes on the counter because he can carry the ball at pace and glances up between touches to build up a picture of what is around him. His doing so is useful for a team that spends long periods out of possession in the Premier League, and is often at its most dangerous on the break.
At the moment of a transition, Sarr reacts, and his teammates know that if he has space to run into, he will often beat a defender to the ball. Watford‘s midfielders will therefore often play round-the-corner passes into the right channel for Sarr to chase having received a square pass in midfield. They can even play balls into that area of the pitch without checking where Sarr is because they know he will be on his way as soon as the initial square pass is played.
Once he finds space on the wing, Sarr looks to get his body between his opponent and the ball as quickly as possible. The point at which that happens is the moment at which there is no chance of recovery for the defender. If he is unable to forge a direct path to goal, Sarr will try and get into a position from which he can put a low ball across the face of goal for a teammate to attack, while he has also built up an effective relationship with right-back Kiko Femenia, and uses the energetic Spaniard’s runs to his own advantage. He could, however, makes his deliveries from those positions a little more targeted – he tends to put the ball into a dangerous area rather than aiming for a particular teammate, and doing so can lead to moves breaking down.
Counter-attacking opportunities are likely to be less frequent if he moves to one of the Premier League’s bigger clubs as might be expected of him. Nonetheless, against a set defence Sarr has the ability to stand his opponent up before whipping a ball into the space behind an opposing defence for a forward to attack (above).
In the way that a wide player who lacks the pace to beat an opponent will instead take a touch out of their feet and bend a cross around the outstretched foot of a defender with enough curl to ensure it stays away from the goalkeeper, Sarr is able to send a cross into the area without the space to dribble past his opponent. This is far from the strongest side to his game, though, and his deliveries can be on the inconsistent side.
Sarr has already proved himself to be a Premier League-quality player, and time will tell whether he can make it at a higher level than that. The signs so far suggest he is destined for bigger things.