Ismaïla Sarr: Watford’s Senegalese Winger
For the first six months of the 2019/20 season, Liverpool reigned supreme as the hottest team in Europe, building an insurmountable lead in the Premier League title race and threatening to defend their Champions League crown. What’s more, they looked poised to replicate a feat not achieved in English football since Arsène Wenger’s 2003/04 Arsenal side: win a Premier League title without losing a single league match.
Up until February 18, Liverpool had only lost two matches all season: a 2-0 defeat to Napoli in the Champions League group stage, and a 5-0 thumping to Aston Villa in the League Cup (side note: Liverpool played their C team for that game). Even when the Reds looked set to drop points against the likes of Norwich City and Leicester City, they’d pull a rabbit out of the hat in the dying moments.
After securing a comeback 3-2 win against West Ham, it seemed as if it would be a standard run of affairs at Vicarage Road, as the league leaders took on a Watford side that had teetered in and out of the relegation zone throughout the entire season. Watford had failed to beat Liverpool since December 20, 2015, during the embryonic stages of Jürgen Klopp’s time at Anfield. It seemed as though Liverpool would brush aside the Hornets without any trouble.
Ismaïla Sarr, though, had other plans.
The home side got off to a promising start, but after 30 minutes, they suffered a severe blow as Gerard Deulofeu exited after rupturing his ACL, suffering a season-ending injury. Nevertheless, Watford kept right at it, and shortly before halftime, Sarr brushed off a tackle from Fabinho, charged down the right flank, and fired a shot that soared well above the goal post. It was a poor final effort, but it was a sign of things to come.
Right after halftime, Sarr found himself with acres of space between Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Robertson. He latched onto Roberto Pereyra’s through ball, but his powerful strike was saved by Alisson, who palmed it away for a corner kick. It wasn’t until the 53rd minute, when Adam Masina’s long throw-in bounced above the dueling Dejan Lovren and Troy Deeney, and into the path of Abdoulaye Doucouré, who trapped the ball onto his chest, charged past Van Dijk, and swung a cross into the path of Sarr, who slid in behind Robertson to tap home the opener.
Six minutes later, Sarr zoomed past Van Dijk and Lovren to latch onto Deeney’s pass, took a touch, and chipped it over the approaching Alisson. For the icing on the cake, Sarr intercepted a wayward back pass from Trent Alexander-Arnold, hesitated and bided his time, before finding Deeney, who chipped home the third goal. It was official: Liverpool’s unbeaten league record was no longer, and it was thanks in no small part to Watford’s lanky Senegalese winger.
Humble Beginnings in Senegal
Born in Saint Louis, a coastal city near the northern border with Mauritania, Sarr went to Oumar Syr Diagne School with his other three siblings. But no matter how hard his father Abdoulaye tried to get him to focus on school, he always hated studying and reading, and often skipped class to play football with his friends. He took up after his father, who played for Senegal in the late 1980s, but never reached the heights required to make a living from football.
“I was a brilliant footballer but back in our day there was no money,” Abdoulaye Sarr said. “We were just given a sandwich or a drink at the end of the match…we were just satisfied with the crowds that watched us.”
After receiving one too many bad reports from his teachers, his parents withdrew him from school and enrolled him in an apprenticeship with a master tailor, so that he could learn the fine trade of tailoring. Nevertheless, his passion for football could not be denied, so he quit his apprenticeship and went behind his parents’ back to try out for Académie Génération Foot, the same academy that produced the likes of Sadio Mané, Papiss Cissé and Diafra Sakho.
Sarr was accepted into the program and headed south for the Dakar-based academy, a four-hour drive from his hometown. He impressed at Génération Foot, helping the first team gain promotion to the Senegal Premier League. It seemed only a matter of time before Sarr followed in the footsteps of Mané and Sakho, and joined Metz in France.
Since 2003, Metz have administered a partnership with Génération Foot; they fund their academy, and in exchange, Génération Foot gives them first dibs on the top-tier talents that the academy produces. When Sarr was 16, Olivier Perrin, the manager of Génération Foot, called up Philippe Gaillot, the sporting director of Metz, and told him to book a flight for Dakar to scout an “incredible player who is capable of amazing things.” Gaillot was blown away by Sarr’s potential, and an agreement was reached that, once he turned 18, Sarr would leave Senegal and sign a professional contract with Metz.
Development in France
On July 13, 2016, Sarr signed a five-year deal with Metz, which had just ascended to Ligue 1 after spending the previous season in the second division. A week after making his official debut against Lille, Senegal manager Aliou Cissé rewarded Sarr with his first call-up to Senegal’s senior team, with a view to including him in the 23-man roster for January’s African Cup of Nations (AFCON). Despite being the youngest player in the tournament, Sarr came off the bench against Tunisia and Zimbabwe, and even started against Algeria, but remained on the bench in the quarterfinals, as Senegal lost to Cameroon on penalties and crashed out of AFCON.
After barely playing in the first half of the season, Sarr returned from Gabon fitter and fresher than ever. On the cusp of his 19th birthday, Sarr won a starting spot and played a key role in the team’s survival efforts, as Metz finished comfortably mid-table, well above the relegation zone. Philippe Hinschberger’s side had a predilection to sit deep, cede possession to the opposition, and hit on the counter. Due to his blistering pace, close control, and efficiency in the final third, Sarr became an essential piece of the attack, gaining rhythm as the season progressed, and scoring the crucial opener against Nancy that sealed Metz’s promotion status.
In the first minute of the match against Saint-Étienne, Sarr latched onto a long pass from Yan Jouffre, breezed past Kévin Malcuit and Jordan Veretout, and launched a rocket of a shot from 30 yards out past a static Stéphane Ruffier. Against Paris Saint-Germain, he sauntered past Maxwell, Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi before delivering an inch-perfect cross to Cheick Diabaté for a last-gasp equalizer. PSG would eventually take all three points via a last-minute goal from Matuidi, but Sarr had left zero doubts over his potential.
By the time the summer transfer window opened up, Sarr had already attracted interest from Newcastle, RB Leipzig, Lille and Monaco. He had even received an offer from Barcelona, who were desperate to find a replacement for the outgoing Neymar, but he rejected the Catalan giants in favor of a move to Rennes. At €17 million (rising to €21 million with bonuses), he was the second-most expensive signing in club history, behind Lucas Severino.
“I saw Rennes as a club that will help me progress and reach great heights,” said Sarr. “I still have to progress defensively, offensively with more flair, and be more decisive in my approach towards goal.”
It seemed as though Sarr was set for an excellent season under Yoann Gourcuff, with the winger being awarded Man of the Match in a 3-1 victory against Marseille. However, his wings were clipped two weeks later when Kévin Théophile-Catherine injured him with a disgraceful Sunday League tackle. Sarr, who had already grown accustomed to shaking off heavy challenges, would miss the next three months with a torn tendon.
Sarr struggled to justify his price tag in his first season, although the litany of ugly challenges he suffered didn’t help his case; Kylian Mbappé picked up the first red card of his professional career for pressing his cleat into Sarr’s ankle. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop him from earning a call-up to the summer’s World Cup in Russia.
He started in each of Senegal’s group stage matches, as the Lions of Teranga were controversially eliminated due to having a worse disciplinary record than Japan. Nevertheless, he made a generally positive impression, in contrast to Mané, who disappointed. Sarr carried this momentum into the 2018/19 season, notching 13 goals and 11 assists in all competitions. While mostly utilized on the right wing, he deputized in other positions, and dazzled under rookie manager Julien Stéphan, as Rennes won the Coupe de France and finished 10th in Ligue 1.
After a shaky debut year in Brittany, Sarr was already attracting big-money offers from Premier League clubs as the season ended. Watford offered €30 million for him early on in the window, but Rennes held out for more, believing that a successful performance in the summer’s AFCON would boost his value. They were right. Sarr impressed as Senegal advanced to the Final, only to lose to Algeria. Club presidents Olivier Létang and Gino Pozzo continued to haggle over the price well into the final days of the transfer window, but they reached an agreement on deadline day. Sarr joined Watford for a base fee of €30 million, with €5 million in potential bonuses.
New Chapter in England
It wasn’t an easy start to life in the Premier League for Sarr. He struggled for playing time under both Javi Gracia and Quique Sánchez Flores, but was handed his second start of the season on November 30 against fellow relegation fighters Southampton. Early on, he scored his first goal for the Hornets, a near carbon copy of his second goal against Liverpool. Whilst trying to jockey for space in the middle of a throw-in, Deeney volleyed it forward into the path of Sarr, who zoomed past Jan Bednarek and Jack Stephens, before smashing it past a helpless Alex McCarthy.
Sarr held onto his starting spot under interim manager Hayden Mullins, and kept his place in the line-up for Nigel Pearson’s first match in charge, against Liverpool. Sarr was going to face his role model, the player he’d regularly study before games, and the player whose career path he had followed up to this point: Mané. Liverpool would go on to win 2-0, but after the match, Mané approached Deeney, the club captain, outside the locker room and told him, “Take care of my boy [Sarr]. He’s a shy boy.”
Since that moment, Sarr’s time at Watford changed for the better. A week later against Manchester United, Sarr hit a half-volley that somehow slipped past David de Gea’s hands and into the goal. Watford would go on to win, and Sarr finally started to gain rhythm and consistency, until suffering a hamstring injury against Tottenham. He missed a month of action, but returned to the starting line-up against Liverpool. Mané, who Sarr refers to as a “big brother,” warned Robertson before the match, “I will need to help you more, otherwise he will kill you, because he is a good dribbler and very, very fast.”
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Liverpool failed to neutralize his threat and fell to a 3-0 defeat via a brace from Sarr and a goal from Deeney, but they would nevertheless go on to finish atop England’s top-flight for the first time in 30 years. As for Watford, they would finish 19th and suffer relegation, but Sarr nevertheless remained put at Vicarage Road and scored 13 goals and 10 assists in 39 appearances as Watford finished second and earned an immediate promotion to the Premier League.
The 2021/22 season would see Watford go through three different managers and finish 19th, and unlike fellow relegated side Burnley, they failed to achieve an immediate return to the Premier League. Sarr notched 10 goals and 6 assists, including a stunning effort that would see him lob West Brom goalkeeper David Button from his own half — later being named the EFL Goal of the Season — but it wasn’t enough to secure promotion.
Watford once again went through three different managers and suffered a dismal 11th-place finish, missing out on a spot in the promotion playoffs by six points. They have already paid the price for missing out on promotion, selling attacking talisman João Pedro to Brighton for £30 million, and they could be set to lose more key players such as Imran Louza and Sarr before commencing a new Championship season under Valérien Ismaël.
At 25 years of age, Ismaïla Sarr has scored 11 goals in 52 appearances for Senegal, playing in two World Cups for the Lions of Teranga and winning the 2022 African Cup of Nations. He has emerged as a key figure in attack for Watford, but with his contract set to expire in 2024, Watford may have no other choice but to cash in on their talented winger this summer. Crystal Palace have shown interest in him as a potential replacement for Wilfried Zaha, whilst Everton had a loan bid rejected in January.
It remains to be seen whether Sarr makes the move to the Premier League or follows in the footsteps of Mané and heads to the Bundesliga, but one thing is becoming increasingly evident: Sarr’s time at Vicarage Road is drawing to a close. Having racked up 34 goals and 24 assists in 131 appearances, he has proven a valuable servant on the flanks for Watford, but unless they can get him to agree to a new deal, they must sell him or lose him on a free in 2024. With Sarr entering the prime of his career, it seems unlikely that he would commit his long-term future to a club that is preparing for yet another campaign in England’s second tier.
Every club wants to sign the next Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. But there’ll never be another Messi or Cristiano, so the focus has to change to something more realistic, like the next Mané. A world-class winger who can break down defenses with his creativity, who can press like a madman for 90 minutes while still dropping back to help his fullback, who can score 20 goals a season. Maybe they won’t be the biggest names — Mané certainly wasn’t when he joined Liverpool from Southampton in 2016 — but they can evolve into the most dangerous forwards in Europe. Players like Mané are godsends in today’s footballing atmosphere, and as such, the onus is on other teams to go out and find the next Mané.
It’s too early to determine who that might be — the likes of Krépin Diatta and Moussa Djenepo have all been likened to him — but Sarr, a player who, like Mané, went from Génération Foot to Metz to the Premier League, is making a strong case for that distinction.
By: Zach Lowy / @ZachLowy
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Getty Images