May 8, 2021

Why Ismaila Sarr’s Premier League story is far from over

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Watford’s record signing showed huge promise in his maiden season, suggesting that the big time is where his ability deserves to be on display weekly

If anything perfectly captured Watford’s chaotic season, it was their 3-2 defeat by Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.

After a demoralising opening half where they fell 2-0 down inside 24 minutes on a day they knew the potential ramifications of not turning up, the shoddy start was probably not surprising to fans of the Hertfordshire club now used to their team’s volatile nature.

Seven minutes after Kieran Tierney doubled the Gunners’ advantage, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang made it 3-0 to the hosts. Job done for Mikel Arteta’s men, relegation for the Hornets…or so we thought.

Well, Watford did get relegated but they gave as good they got after half-time. While Troy Deeney pulled one back from the spot just before the interval, the away side raised their game exponentially in the second and probably deserved to pull level for 3-3.

At the forefront of that renaissance was Ismaila Sarr, the club record £30 million signing from Stade Rennais, who’d taken Watford’s run-in by the scruff of the neck post-lockdown and indeed since the turn of the year.

The 22-year-old’s look of dejection at the final whistle was a poignant reminder that the club would be playing football in 2020/21 in the Championship, a situation the youngster probably didn’t envisage when he moved from France on deadline day last year.

Indeed, he was central to his side’s fightback at the Emirates, showing the electric pace and acceleration that had tormented Premier League full-backs from time to time this season. The Senegal star created a staggering four chances vs Arteta’s side, with two falling into the ‘big chances’ column.

For context, none of his teammates created that many and neither did anyone on the home team. He set up Danny Welbeck’s goal in the 66th minute and should have doubled his assist tally minutes later but for Emiliano Martinez’s incredible save to deny the Englishman’s improvised back-heeled effort, to the utter disbelief of Deeney.

In truth, maybe Watford wouldn’t have had it all to do had Sarr made the most of an opportunity in the 12th minute. Having received the pass from Kiko Femenia, the West African took too long on the ball and the chance to shoot was lost. Still, he set up Abdoulaye Doucoure on the edge of the box but the midfielder’s heavy touch allowed Dani Ceballos to block his effort and Martinez saved the rebound that fell to Roberto Pereyra.

Those gilt-edged chances missed cost the Hornets on the final day. They failed to tuck away five of the seven created, edged the Expected Goals metric 3.92 to 1.95 and would have come away with all three points on another day.

For Sarr, who still managed to churn out performances amid the turbulence at Vicarage Road that saw three permanent head coaches take charge throughout the season, it was a promising season despite initial struggles to get into the team.

Javi Gracia, who signed the pacy winger, lasted only four games before his sacking, Quique Sanchez Flores was in charge for 10 fixtures before being jettisoned after a 2-1 loss at Southampton in November and Nigel Pearson was astonishingly fired with two games to play.

Even with only 28 games under his belt, 22 of which were starts, the West African’s raw numbers were respectable. He scored five times and assisted four, second behind Deeney and Gerard Deulofeu respectively, and was behind only the club captain (12) for total goal contributions this term.

According to Fbref, the 22-year-old was involved in eight goal-creating actions that led to goals, unsurprisingly higher than his colleagues, while he completed 49 open-play passes that led to shot attempts – third behind Doucoure (59) and Gerard Deulofeu (51).

To put this in context, when Sarr’s return is compared with Bukayo Saka, Mason Greenwood and Christian Pulisic, three youngsters who took the league by storm this season, it makes for an interesting assessment.

The Anglo-Nigerian contributed to seven goal-creating actions and 45 shot-creating actions in open play, the English teenager also posted seven offensive actions leading to a goal with 32 passes leading to an effort on goal. Pulisic, though, was involved in more goal-creating activities and in-play passes leading to shots, edging the Senegalese 13 and 51 respectively in both metrics.

Frankly, Sarr could have posted even better stats had teammates made the most of his nine big chances created (the highest in the side) and had he converted six presentable opportunities that went begging.

Be that as it may, the ex-Rennes man still gave supporters of the club reason to cheer in a maiden year of highs and lows for the team.

He put Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool to the sword with a brace and an assist in a 3-0 performance at Vicarage Road that sent shockwaves through the country and gave highly rated left-back Ben Chilwell a torrid time in a 1-1 draw that made observers question the Leicester City man’s competence.

Furthermore, the rapid attacker produced moments of magic in 2-1 wins over Norwich City and Newcastle United that briefly gave fans hope of staying up after the restart but it wasn’t to be.

With Watford’s five-year love affair in the top flight now over, the financial ramifications mean they may have to let go of some of their best players, and Sarr certainly counts as a saleable asset.

In a depressed market caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it remains to be seen if sides in the Prem would pay a premium for the Senegal international who still has four years to go on his contract.

There are about six weeks for teams to prepare for the new season and 10 for the summer transfer window to run, giving the Hertfordshire club little time to sort Sarr’s future, get a new head coach and decide on their squad for next season.

The plan when they signed the winger from Ligue 1 was to build around him for the future but relegation from arguably the most popular league in the world has thrown a spanner in the works.

After thriving in the Premier League in his first year, the talented wideman has shown he has what it takes to play with the very best in the business, and clubs in the league should be lining up for his signature.

Sarr’s story in the Prem is far from over.