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, and he helped his club earn an immediate return to the top flight. Watford fans were then treated to another year of Sarr in the Premier League, but after another relegation in 2021/22, it looks as though they will no longer be able to hang on to one of their star players. Manchester United and Leeds are just two clubs to have been heavily linked with a move for the Senegal international.
Over the course of his time at the club, Sarr has been Watford's top scorer, a consistent attacking threat who can play anywhere across the front line. He made the headlines early on in 2022/23, when he showed just how deep his talents go by scoring astonishing goal from his own half against West Brom. “Just seeing it and his quality, it was a moment of genius really,” said manager Rob Edwards. “It was a great bit of technique and vision – whenever you see a goal like that, it’s special. We can’t take credit for that – it was just down to Ismaïla.”
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 one might expect of a right-footed right winger.
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 commit to a challenge 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 them.
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 them (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. Both should improve with age and experience, but for now he 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.
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, though he could also function well in a team that focuses on quick attacking transitions after a high press.
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. His teammates 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. That pass acts as a trigger for Sarr to start his movement.
When running onto a ball out wide, Sarr looks to get his body between his opponent and the ball as quickly as possible. The point at which he manages to do that goal side of the defender is the moment at which there is no chance of them recovering due to his pace.
If the defender gets manages to get goal side, denying Sarr a direct path to goal, he will almost always try and take his opponent on around the outside. He is very effective at working himself enough space to put a low ball across the face of goal for a teammate to attack. He could, however, makes these deliveries 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.
However, he is also effective when there is no space to attack into and he faces a more set defence. He 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 inconsistent. There is, however, certainly some quality to work with there.
Sarr has already proved himself to be a Premier League-quality player, and it will surely be a matter of time before he is back at that level. The signs so far suggest he is destined for a good career in the top flight.
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Author: Ali Tweedale