Ismaila Sarr 2019/20 – scout report
Ismaïla Sarr joined Watford last summer from French side Stade Rennais. He spent two seasons at the Ligue 1 club after starting his senior career at Metz just a year before. When still playing for Metz, European giants FC Barcelona even attempted to sign the Senegalese. However, Sarr chose Rennes because of the playing time guarantee offered by the club.
His choice was correct. Sarr’s brilliant performance for Rennes helped him to secure a place in Senegal’s 23-man squad for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The fairytale doesn’t stop there. Last year, Sarr helped Senegal to reach their second-ever African Cup final in the nation’s history. That was enough to convince Watford to sign him last August. Without further ado, this tactical analysis will inform you about his role and impact for the Hornets.
Sarr is a versatile winger who can play on both flanks. At Rennes, he played 20 games on the left flank; making three goals and six assists in two seasons. However, his best position seems to be on the opposite wide area. Looking at the stats, he spent 33 games for Rennes as a right-winger. From those games, he’s managed to score eight times and assisted seven.
Sarr’s versatility doesn’t stop there. The French club even played him as a centre-forward for a couple of times. During his time at Rennes, the Senegalese played at least 18 matches as a target man across two seasons. He even contributed seven goals when playing centrally. A quite respectable number to say the least.
Moving to Watford, Sarr is moved permanently to the right flank. The decision is understandable because the Hornets’ opposite wide area is flooded with bigger names like Gerard Deulofeu and Roberto Pereyra. So far, it’s safe to say that Sarr is comfortable playing as a right-winger week in week out. Per the statistics, the 22-year-old starts his Premier League career with five goals and four assists in just 1,226 minutes of playing time. Such a feat proves his suitability in Watford’s tactics.
Provides the width
This part of the scout report will examine Sarr’s role in the Hornets’ attacking game. Watford prefers to use a direct approach to build their attacks. If we look at the statistics, the particular style suits their target man Troy Deeney very well. So far, Deeney has managed to win 7.6 aerial duels per game; joint-highest in the league. The long balls would be provided to the talisman before being laid off to one of his attacking comrades.
Mainly, Sarr doesn’t participate in the direct approach. He would stay wide, hugging the touchline, and provide the width for his team. By doing so he could stretch the opponents’ backline as well as allowing (one of) the midfielders to come to nearby Deeney.
However, it doesn’t make the Senegalese useless in Watford’s attacking scheme. Instead, his wide positioning has a particular purpose. Sarr can be used whenever Watford needs to switch the play. The right-winger could then be served by a diagonal pass from one of his teammates from the deeper position, mostly by Étienne Capoue.
Offer various skillset in the final third
After receiving the ball in his playing area, Sarr would be tasked to play quite directly. This means he would try to send crosses into the box for his attacking comrades. Nigel Pearson would flood the penalty box with up to four players to win the cross. Targetman Deeney would be supported by Abdoulaye Doucouré, Deulofeu, and additionally one of the central midfielders in such situations.
Similarly, Sarr would also help to flood the penalty box when the ball is being played from the opposite side. The Senegalese’ relatively huge physique (185 centimetres and 76 kilograms) is quite similar to Watford’s front two, making him a threat in crossing situations.
Different from Deeney and Doucouré, Sarr would offer himself by arriving at the far post. By doing so, he would come from the opponents’ left-back blind-spot, making his run more undetectable. Not only that, but he would also try to attack the channel between the left-back and the centre-back. Sometimes Sarr would even finish his run at the goalmouth. Such aggressive runs would often confuse the defenders on how to close Watford’s attackers inside the box.
Useful in the direct approach
Despite being positioned wide for most of the times, Pearson also likes to tuck Sarr inside in Watford’s direct approach. When engaging in aerial duels, Deeney would drop in between the lines to receive the ball. In the process, his movement would trigger the nearest opponents’ centre-back to follow him. Then, the striker would try to head the ball in behind for one of his teammates; to the gap just vacated by the defender. Another variation for him is to lay the ball off to his nearest teammate, regardless of their positions at the time.
When tucked inside, Sarr’s role is to receive the lay-off from Deeney. Sarr would come close and try to attack the channels. Not only that, but he could also attack the gap left by the opponents’ centre-back who step up to follow Deeney. Sarr’s pace, as well as Deeney’s aerial ability, are equally important to help Watford get the ball inside the box.
Another reason why Sarr is useful when tucked inside in such situations is his presence. By being close to his teammates, Sarr could combine with them and try to continue the attack by shorter passes. It doesn’t stop there. Sarr could also join the immediate press if the opponents’ win the aerial duel; thus helping his team to win the ball back.
As mentioned previously in this analysis, playing centrally is not an oddity for Sarr. Sarr would come to the central part of the pitch whenever Deeney drops from his position. The Senegalese then would try to make runs in behind when moving central. In the process, he would start his run in the channels; between the opponents’ defenders. The objective is to confuse the defenders on who to close him down. Not only that, Sarr’s exquisite pace most likely allows him to win a footrace against relatively-slower centre-backs.
Sarr’s pace is also useful when he’s positioned in his natural position; on the flank. In one-versus-one duels, Sarr would try to use this particular ability to gets past the defender. In the process mainly he would try to knock the ball forward and outsprint his marker. Sometimes the defender would try to get in his way and force Sarr in a more physical duel. However, it’s not enough to stop Sarr. The right-winger’s bigger build would most likely allow him to outmuscle the defender and attack the space quicker.
The 22-year-old trailblazing pace is also a good weapon for Watford in transition. Sarr doesn’t only have good acceleration, but he has unmatched speed and endurance. These traits enable him to sprint for 50 or 60 metres consistently; making him a dangerous threat in Watford’s counter-attacks.
Pearson prefers to set his team up in a mid-block 4–4–2 when they don’t have the ball. However, the shape could also shift temporarily to 4–5–1 if Doucouré retreats to the midfield line. Furthermore, they could also morph to a more defensive shape, which is 6–3–1. One thing that stays in all these shapes is the defensive compactness, both vertically and horizontally.
Either in the 4–4–2, 4–5–1, or the 6–3–1, Sarr is tasked to protect the flank. In the process, Pearson would allow him to drift wider from his position. This means sometimes he could be found closer to the opponents’ wide player(s) rather than his nearest midfielder. The objective behind this is to prevent the wide player(s) from receiving the ball as well as letting Watford’s backline solely focus on defending the central lanes. Even if the opponent can switch the ball to Sarr’s area, the Senegalese would be near enough to close his man down; therefore limiting his time and space with the ball.
Sarr could also defend a bit more aggressively in the mid-block system. To do so, he would step up from the midfield line and close down the opponents’ left-back. By doing that he would prevent the on-ball centre-back to play the ball wide. Even better, this could also force the opponent to play the ball long.
As mentioned previously, Sarr is often tasked to provide crosses in the final third. Unfortunately, he’s not a decent crosser by any means. If we look at the stats, Sarr only averages 0.8 successful crosses per 90 minutes in the Premier League. Yet, his attempts soar high at 4.1 crosses per 90 league minutes. It means Sarr has only 19.51% success rate when delivering the ball from the wide area.
Another issue in Sarr’s offensive game is his lack of quality in one-versus-one duels. Quite often he relies too much on his physicality to burst into the final third, which makes him rather predictable. On some occasions, the Senegalese would even play a backward pass instead of trying to drive past the defender(s) in front of him. It’s safe to say that Sarr doesn’t have the trickery as well as bravery to excel in one-versus-one duels.
Defensively, Sarr has a big problem to work on. His main issue is his lack of defensive awareness, especially against the league’s offensive full-backs. Sarr would focus on the ball too much and let the opponents’ left-back to attack the space behind him. Even worse, the left-back would start in Sarr’s eyesight rather than from his blind-spot; further underlining his lack of awareness.
Despite still being a 22-year-old, Sarr has proven his quality in big games. This season alone he has scored multiple goals against Liverpool and Manchester United. Tactic-wise, the Senegalese is already an important figure for Watford. His physicality and explosiveness suit perfectly to the Hornets’ brand of football.
However, Sarr still needs to add a lot to his game. As a right-winger, he needs to add some trickery and unpredictability to make him a more dangerous threat in the final third. Not only that, but Sarr also needs to polish his defensive ability to add more resilience for his team. Those are the thing he needs to do if he wants to secure a big-money move in the future.
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