After a successful play-off run defeating Morocco, Egypt and Algeria, French coach Bruno Metsu took Senegal to South Korea and Japan, to play in their first World Cup back in 2002. One of the dark horses of the tournament, 42nd placed Senegal surprised the world after a 1-0 victory against European powerhouse France, who were ranked 1st going into the tournament. After drawing with Denmark and Uruguay, they moved on to the Round of 16, defeating Sweden in extra time. Next on the list was the Quarter Finals – something only 3 African teams have been able to attend, still to this day. In the 93rd minute a goal was eventually conceded, and time ran out for the Lions. Despite this loss, Senegal put itself on the map of being a dominant footballing nation not only in the country of Africa, but in the world.
Fast forward to 2018, with the World Cup being hosted in Russia. Senegal was put into a round-robin qualifying group with Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, and South Africa, with the winner of the group gaining entry into the famous International competition. Who managed to come out on top? Senegal showed persistence and determination, obtaining 14 of 18 points available in the group – a dream come true as a 16-year tenure of absence was snapped – their much-anticipated second-ever Would Cup participation was finally a reality.
The Lions had a tough challenge ahead of them, in what I believe was, and still is, the most difficult group to predict the two sides moving on to the Round of 16: Group H consists of Poland, Colombia, Japan, and Senegal – four nations all from different continents of the world, all with the potential to succeed and display their quality on full effect.
Surprisingly, the favourites of the group in European side Poland, have now officially failed to reach the Round of 16 after, after 2 losses sequentially to Senegal (2-1) and Colombia (3-0): they sit in fourth place in the group with 0 points. Colombia had a surprise and scare start to the World Cup going down to 10 men and eventually losing to the Japanese (2-1) but bounced back to defeat Poland: they currently sit in third with 3 points. Japan and Senegal have each secured a win in their first games, but drew against each other (2-2) in the second match: they both have 4 points with the same goal differential, topping Group H.
In terms of the Senegalese squad, numerous individuals are familiar with stars who currently play in England, such as: Mame Biram Diouf (Stoke City), Sadio Mané (Liverpool), Badou Ndiaye (Stoke City), Alfred N’Diaye (Wolverhampton), Cheikhou Kouyaté (West Ham), Idrissa Gueye (Everton); Serie A TIM central defender Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli); and lastly, striker Moussa Sow (former Lille and Fenerbahce star). However, when examining the squad into further depth and detail, there is one very important name that the nation must hold tight and give experience and opportunity to. His name? 20-year-old Ismaïla Sarr, who currently plays as an attacker in Ligue 1 (France), for Stade Rennais.
Who is the young Lion?
ISMAÏLA SARR, was born in Saint-Louis, Senegal, a country who largely inherited the French culture: the main language and way of speech was from the European country. After starting his career in the Capital of Senegal (Dakar) with Génération Foot, he moved to France to play for FC Metz at the young age of 18, in the summer of 2016. His success and promise in the pre-season friendlies and training camp, allowed him to secure a spot in the starting eleven, and he would go on to make 31 appearances for the club, scoring 5 while providing 5 assists. Within his first season abroad, Sarr was also able to obtain his first call-up’s and debut for his nation of Senegal.
After just one season, clubs came searching for Sarr to join their side. Stade Rennais were able to convince the player and FC Metz for his signature and he moved for £15.30m ahead of the 2017/18 season. Another fantastic spell, Sarr managed the exact same point total as the year before, but with only 24 appearances. Rennes finished in 5th position giving themselves the opportunity to appear in the next Europa League, while Sarr’s old club FC Metz, were relegated, finishing at the bottom of the table – a coincidence?
Due to Sarr’s form, he was able to make Senegal’s 23-player squad heading to Russia this summer, and it has been a decision that has not gone to waste.
Primarily a player who works off of the left side of the pitch, Sarr has the ability to play anywhere on the front line – on the left-wing, right-wing, or solely up top as a striker. He is right footed: working on the left flank is able to beat opponents with his quick feet and cut in to spot a through ball, or a pass to one of his teammates, or is able to take space and rush the opposing defenders; on the right flank he works give-and-go’s with the right back and center-midfielders that allow him to get behind the defenders, and whip in a cross or low-driven pass to the striker. The latter is where he has played for Senegal so far in this World Cup.
His acceleration is impressive, as once taking one touch forward, defenders are 9 out of 10 times caught chasing him. This leads to Sarr getting fouled on multiple occasions. He is also very calm and knows what he is doing once inside the opposing 18-yard box: his movement is precise and rapid, and defenders are unable to mark him properly with a close eye. Sarr is also the type of player that likes to go forward – it is the first decision that comes to his mind when he has the ball, which results in him creating many chances.
In terms of weaknesses, Sarr’s touch and ball control are a key part of his game that he needs to improve. Though able to beat many players by taking a few touches and running onto the ball, this does not always work especially when faced with an experienced defender. His in-tight touches are far away from him, and he is sometimes caught trying to do too much with the ball. This results in turnovers and is harmful to the side when on the counter-attack. In addition, Sarr has little-to-none defensive work-rate. Going forward, he is a menace to be dealt with, but when he is off of the ball, he needs to understand the formations that are in-play and coincide with them.
Where has Sarr fit in at this World Cup?
In a starting 11 with a mix of experience and youth, Sarr paired up with Niang and Mané for the attack has been the most sensible decision in that 4-4-2 or 4-1-4-1 formation that has been put into play by coach Cissé. For the Lions, Sarr has played in his one of his most comfortable positions – the right side of the pitch – and the opportunity to play the youngster has paid off with his proper performances for the African side so far.
In the first match against Poland – clearly the underdogs from all aspects – Sarr started the match as a right midfielder. He completed 26 of 30 passes (87%), attempting 5 dribbles – the most out of any player in the match. After Senegal took the lead in the 37th minute however, Sarr was kept to the defensive shape, worrying more about the oppositions attack, then going forward himself. With 2 strikers in Diouf and Niang ahead of him, it made sense.
In the second match against Japan, he once again started on the right side of that midfield 4, with only Niang on striker ahead of him, due to a change in formation. He managed a shot on target, a 79% pass success percentage, and 3 aerial duels won. However, he was kept to a minimal in terms of dribbling with Japan’s high and intense pressure, especially from his opponents on the right side of the pitch in Nagatomo and Inui.
Sarr has the capability to become one of the bright stars on a top European football club. At just 20 years of age, you can expect him to be a key aspect of this future Senegalese side, stepping forward in the years to come.
With just one match left against Colombia in which could make or break the Lions potential progression, Sarr needs to remain being the player he has been to this date. In addition, I would like to see him display more of his attacking sense like he has shown so any times over the past 2 years in France.
A team not to be underestimated, Sarr of Senegal are a player and nation to watch for this World Cup – be sure to keep an eye out for them.
By: Steven Moore