Malang Sarr 2019/20 – scout report
For a long time, there was a lack of clarity regarding the contractual situation of Malang Sarr at Nice OGC. Last week, the 21-year-old’s agency put an end to speculations and announced that his contract is expiring with the player having no intention of renewing it. Sarr has already been a hot stock around Europe in recent transfer windows and there should be no shortage of interested clubs, not least due to the absence of a transfer fee.
Malang Sarr joined Nice at the age of six and made his for the first team with 17 under former coach Lucien Favre in season 2016/17. Since then, Sarr has been a regular starter and one of the key players in Nice’s defence. At 21, the left-footed defender already amassed an impressive amount of 102 appearances in Ligue 1. However, this season, he was not able to consistently perform on the high level he used to. Instead, he rather took a step backward in his development. He only played 58% of all minutes and even found himself benched seven times.
In this tactical analysis, we will take a closer look Marlang Sarr’s role at nice and his playing style in Patrick Vieira’s tactics. In addition, this scout report will look at his strengths as well as his weaknesses, and the reasons for the dent in his performances.
Sarr’s role at Nice
Given that the performance of a centre-back is heavily tied to the style of his team and the according role of the player; it is worth examining what Nice have done this season. Malang Sarr’s current coach is his French countryman Patrick Vieira. The former Arsenal captain mainly deploys a flexible 4-1-4-1 formation, sometimes opting-in for a 3-4-3. While Sarr’s preferred and arguably best position is at centre-back, Vieira made use of his flexibility and also used him as a left-back in six of 16 appearances in the starting lineup.
At centre-back, Sarr is involved in the build-up early on as Nice try to play from the back sophisticatedly. They are generally quite patient and possession-based, tending not to rush and opt-in for the long ball even under pressure. Averaging 54.1% possession, Sarr’s abilities in the build-up are of particular demand when it comes to breaking the opponent’s pressing lines to progress the ball. Against the ball, they are not the most aggressive team, usually defending in a medium block while occasionally pressing high up the pitch.
Another aspect of Nice is their high-pushing last line in possession of what has presented itself as a disadvantage at one time or another due to poor defence against counterattacks. That said, the advantage is that they have shorter distances, which enable a more compact counter-pressing. Thus, Nice’s defenders often defend very proactively in high areas of the pitch. Because of that, they also have to bring the required physicality and athleticism to cover ground when the opposing team overcomes the pressing trying to exploit the gaps in behind. Intelligent anticipations are essential in this regard.
To sum it up, without judging the execution, Nice’s defenders have playmaking responsibilities in the build-up and have to be able to defend proactively high up the pitch in spacious areas.
Starting with Sarr’s defensive stats, we take a look at his performances in aerial duels and defensive duels compared to centre backs in Europe’s top five leagues. Given his perception as one of the brightest defensive talents around Europe, his stats look surprisingly anything but good. In fact, his aerial duels win percentage is the fourth-worst among all centre backs included. Even though we can’t say that the only reason is a small sample size, the numbers from previous season prove that he’s not as bad as it seems. In the last two seasons, he won 57% and 58% respectively according to Wyscout. That’s still far from being elite, however, that would push him pretty much in the middle of the intersecting mean lines and is a reasonable number at a size of 1.82 m.
Just looking at this graph, you might be wondering why any team would seriously consider this guy. And indeed, other defensive metrics don’t look much better either. Even though, the 21-year-old successfully tries to avoid fouls (0.49 per 90), his true tackle win rate is at only 48.8%. This has not been much better in recent years as well.
Next, we look at his abilities in the build-up. Considering his playmaking duties, we should assume that Sarr is quite comfortable with the ball, right? This time he doesn’t disappoint us as he is a very decent ball progressor, averaging 11.38 per 90. Additionally, he averages a decent amount of 7.11 passes into the final third per 90.
So, before we move on: What does this analysis tell us and what kind of player type are we actually talking about? For one, he has good ball-playing abilities and is able to progress the ball into higher areas of the pitch. Beyond the defensive numbers we discussed, he appears to be a proactive defender which is in line with Nice’s general tactics. Even though his pressure output significantly declined from last year, it’s still an essential part of his game. Furthermore, he comes up high for possession-adjusted interceptions (3.19 per 90) based on data from fbref, which is another sign of proactivity.
Flexibility and athleticism
Now, we can take a look at some sequences that paint a picture of his strengths and weaknesses. Sarr’s flexibility makes him especially interesting for coaches who like to change their formation and practice different systems. Patrick Vieria is one of these coaches and already deployed him as a left-back, centre-back in a back four and left centre-back in a back three.
Regardless of the formation, especially his athletic skills stand out. Sarr has a great mobility, which allows him to intercept strikers that made it behind Nice’s last line. Due to his space-filling steps, he is able to make up a lot of ground quickly when covering depth for his partner at centre-back. The same applies when covering for the full-back.
As we discussed, Sarr is generally a proactive defender that likes to step out of the last line to apply pressure to his opponent. He either follows the striker closely or steps out when a player in front of him receives the ball with his back to the goal. There are times where he reads these situations very well and can eventually stop the attack. These actions are facilitated when playing with three at the back or as left-back due to the defensive protection.
Although his performance against Monaco included some unforced errors, playing in a back three seems to suit him very well. The role of a left-wide centre-back allows him more freedom as the defensive cover is ensured. In these situations, he can carry the ball into midfield through the left half-space and sometimes even join the attack with deep runs run in behind.
Unsurprisingly, the role of a full-back is interpreted in a more defensive-oriented way by the 21-year-old. Even though he is capable of acting in higher areas of the pitch and rotate the ball with his teammates, you will rarely find him at the baseline dribbling or crossing. Nice basically crosses very seldom and Sarr averages only 0.3 crosses per game as left-back.
Abilities in possession
As already discussed in the first section, Nice has been a possession-oriented team this season and many opponents tend to defend in a relatively low block against them. This means that Sarr and his defensive colleagues have to engage in higher areas of the pitch, frequently even at the midline. That, however, is something Sarr is comfortable with. He has a good first touch that allows him to progress the ball with clean and dynamic movements. He often has the open left half-space in front of him, dribbles dynamically into it, and looks for higher positioned midfielders lurking between the lines and offering passing lanes.
These vertical passes through the left half-space between the opposition’s winger and left central midfielder are one of the main patterns in Sarr’s game. He is able to break the first two pressing lines and progress the ball into dangerous zones before the last line to the attackers.
Another strength is his long-range passing. Long diagonal passes are still one of the most valuable abilities against ball-oriented defending. Due to his excellent passing range, Sarr is able to shift the play through precise long balls from the left half-space to the right-wing. These passes get the defence into motion and force them to shift quickly while Nice’s winger can get into dangerous 1 vs 1 situations.
His passes often have the right height, speed, and timing. However, as we will further point out later, he has a high spread this season. Sometimes you are just amazed by his range, sometimes you wonder what he was thinking at that moment.
When both things come together, dribbling into higher zones and using his long-range passing, situations as below against Reims can occur. Sarr takes advantage of the low block that has no intention to press him high up the pitch. You can easily make an argument that he should do that at a higher frequency when the possibility emerges.
More often, he likes to play long balls to the left side. Against Toulouse for example, Nice profited from a red card. Sarr often indents into the middle zone to receive passes from the right side and then play an accurate long ball to the left flank with his second touch. Doing this with the second touch is important to note and brings us back to his good first touch. Sometimes these tenths of a second and the clean processing can be crucial to catching the opponent unsorted. Thereby, Nice could cross two zones trying to find a gap against a low block.
When he receives the ball during the build-up on the left side or in the left half-space, he also tends to play vertical long balls either to the winger or behind the opponent’s last line. This rounds off the variability of his passing, but is mostly less effective.
Where does the drop in performance come from?
Having watched Malang Sarr in previous years, I was surprised how negligent and oftentimes unfocused the 21-year-old has been. This season, Sarr often lacks the right feeling for space and situation. As a result of his improvable decision-making, he often gets caught on the wrong foot or doesn’t drop deeper to slow down the opponent’s attack and provide defensive protection. That’s particularly visible in transitions.
There are also numerous examples where a small movement of the strikers influences him and pulls him out of the defence. In some regard, this is also a result of the style of play at Nice, as defenders tend to stick consistently with their opponents and are easily pulled out of cover.
Here, we have an instance where Sarr tries to set the striker offside but is way too late again. Yes, it wouldn’t have helped anyway because the left-back doesn’t jump out either – but, once again, this emphasizes his slow reaction as well as Nice’s worrying defensive set-up.
It is also noticeable that he sometimes focuses too much on the ball instead of considering the whole game and gaps that might occur if he makes a certain movement. This allows his direct opponent to escape his marking with ease. What we could also see in the first picture of this section is further underlined below as he’s not aware of his opponent.
Blindside defending is arguably one of the most difficult parts for a centre-back. However, with Sarr it’s not only that he’s not constantly scanning his environment to be aware of dangerous situations that might occur – oftentimes it seems like he’s sleeping and only realizes the danger when it’s already there and almost too late.
Another aspect that struck me is that he tends to become very insecure after making mistakes. Sometimes, after a bad pass, for example, he tends to only choose the safe option afterwards. Doing that in order to regain more security again is by no means wrong. However, this often results in Sarr being too cautious and some bumbling errors. This is not only noticeable in pressing situations but also in the simplest of actions. I’m far away from judging his psych but that’s rather a lack of concentration or self-confidence (probably both) than missing quality.
Why is he still good?
After this scout report, one could get the impression that it is better to keep your hands off the player: clumsy errors, blips in concentration etc. However, one should not fall short for the recency bias and not forget the circumstances. There’s more than what we currently see in his performances and there are reasons why I still think he’s a very good and especially talented player.
First, we should consider the overall situation on the Cote d’Azur. Nice are not really a stable club. In the last two years, the club has undergone a major upheaval with many players coming and going as well as a new owner. Moreover, their squad has an average age of only 23.7 years. Considering his development in recent years and his constant good performances, it cannot be ruled out that he felt too much responsibility weighing on him becoming one of the leaders at such a young age.
Additionally, their defensive set-up is not good in general, which brings us back to the second section about Sarr’s role at Nice. The approach is very demanding and at the same time very risky. If not executed well, gaps and spaces in behind can be exploited easily. Sarr is just one part of a very expandable defensive structure. Their vulnerability is underlined by the fourth-worst number of Expected Goals Against in Ligue 1 and the current table is in many ways misleading given Nice’s xG Difference of -0.26 per game. In a better defensive structure where he doesn’t have to defend as spacious as he has to right now, he might do himself a lot easier. That’s indicated when Nice defends in their medium block.
Second, with all the critics and his mistakes in mind, none of that is not teachable. Sarr has already shown that he possesses all the fundamentals that you’d hope for, including the flexibility to occupy different positions. It seems like (and again, this is a vague assertion by myself), Malang Sarr just needs that new challenge in a different environment with a coach that works with him on his weaknesses in a very detailed, but also trusting, way to get back to where he was and beyond that, make the next step in his career. A dent in the development is nothing unusual for a 21-year-old. However, it is all the more important to reflect on the problems and causes in order to work on it and regain old strength.
As this tactical analysis has hopefully shown, Malang Sarr is a talented central defender despite some weaker performances this season. He possesses many abilities that you expect from a modern centre-back. At 21, Malang Sarr still has a lot of potential and room for development to get closer to become an elite defender and overcome his weaknesses.
What’s next for him is a crucial question. Given all the problems that he has had this season, I would argue that he’s not ready for a move to a top club in Europe as of yet. An intermediate step to further develop himself, work on his weaknesses might be the best for him in the long-term.
That said, many clubs that have been linked with him previously have proven track records of developing young talent, whether Gladbach, Leverkusen, or Leipzig. In addition, they all have highly-valued coaches, all of whom certainly value a flexible young defender. Personally, I hope to see him in the Bundesliga as his style would fit very well. Either way, there should be no shortage of interested clubs even in times of Covid-19. Now it is up to Malang Sarr and his agent to make the right decision.