Ismaïla Sarr setting an example for relegated superstars everywhere


After scoring twice in a 3-0 win that ended Liverpool’s hopes of completing an invincible season last February, few would have expected Watford’s Ismaïla Sarr to be lining up in the Championship over a year later.

That win moved Nigel Pearson’s Hornets out of the top-flight relegation zone following an impressive upturn in form after he had become the club’s third manager of the season in the previous December, in no small part thanks to eye-catching performances from Sarr against Manchester United, Aston Villa and Bournemouth.

However, a little over a week after ending Liverpool’s unbeaten league run that had lasted for more than a year, the Premier League season was brought to a shuddering halt as the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic became apparent.

Watford won just two of their ten games during Project Restart and Pearson was replaced as manager following an alleged dressing room bust-up after a defeat at West Ham, before the club succumbed to relegation on the final day of the season after a 3-2 defeat to Arsenal.

Even though Sarr provided an impressive assist for Danny Welbeck at the Emirates, he had struggled to reach the same heights he had pre-pandemic throughout the summer fixtures as the Hertfordshire club returned to the Championship for the first time since 2015.

After rumoured moves to both Liverpool and Manchester United failed to materialise in the summer transfer window with Watford understandably keen to receive a hefty fee for a player they had spent the best part of £30 million on only a year beforehand, Sarr remained at Vicarage Road as the new campaign got underway.

Rather than throw his toys out of the pram at the prospect of spending a season in the second tier or demanding a move away when Watford were toiling in the league during the January transfer window, Sarr has got his head down, played 36 out of 41 league games so far this season and proven himself to be one of the finest players outside of the Premier League during Watford’s recent fantastic run of form.

It has not all been plain sailing though, under Serbian manager Vladrimir Ivić, the product of Senegal’s prestigious Génération Foot academy was often used either upfront in a 3-5-2 formation or on the right of midfield in a 4-4-2, contributing to a fairly underwhelming start to the season on a personal level along with several of his talented team-mates.

Despite picking up results at a fairly consistent rate, Ivic struggled to implement the entertaining style of football that had been promised upon his arrival and by using Sarr in unfamiliar positions he would either deny him the opportunity to attack areas of space from deep, as he so regularly does at his best, or prevent him the freedom he needs to provide a threat in the opposition penalty area.

Just like the majority of his fellow Watford players, Sarr has benefitted enormously from the appointment of Xisco Muñoz as Ivić’s replacement in December.

After scoring the winning goal against league leaders Norwich in Muñoz’ first game in charge, he has begun to look considerably more like the world-beater who tore apart Virgil van Dijk and co. just under 14 months ago.

The early weeks of the Spaniard’s tenure saw not a great deal change but since adopting a 4-3-3 system that has allowed Sarr to play in his preferred position on the right of the front three, few attackers in the Championship have looked more deadly.

A 6-0 win against Bristol City in the middle of February saw Sarr score twice and also collect three assists as the Robins’ young wing-back Ryley Towler was given a torrid afternoon that ended with him being substituted at half-time.

Seven goals and five assists had been provided in Muñoz’ first 19 games in charge as Watford have established themselves as the main contenders for the second automatic promotion spot, but the 23-year-old saved arguably his most influential performance for Reading’s visit to Vicarage Road on Friday night.

The meeting with Veljko Paunović’s play-off chasers was just the type of game that the Senegalese winger would have been expected to light up once it became clear he would be spending a year in the second tier, and he certainly did not disappoint.

An early run in behind Royals’ left-back Lewis Gisbon that was only halted by goalkeeper Rafael coming out and smothering the ball should have served as an early sign of what was to come for the young Everton loanee, although quite what he could have done to prevent the opening goal is hard to know.

A neat passage of play between Sarr, right-back Kiko Femenía and Nathaniel Chalobah opened up a pocket of space on the right hand side of the box. Rather than fire a shot towards goal on his favoured foot, Sarr rolled the ball onto his left before curling a perfectly weighted effort over the Reading goalkeeper and into the top corner of the net.

Although the goal looked fairly simple in it’s execution, there was a limited amount that the Reading defence could have done once Watford’s danger man found himself on the edge of their penalty area, and the nonchalance of the finish belied just how sensational of a strike it was.

The energy and excitement of Muñoz on the touchline has been a stark contrast to Ivić’s more reserved demeanour, and the furious cries of their manager were a complimentary soundtrack to the regularity with which his players were winning the ball back in the Reading half.

It was from such a situation that Sarr was able to double the Watford lead less than two minutes after he had opened the scoring.

Once Gibson was robbed of possession as he desperately searched for a team-mate to pass to, Watford’s Danish midfielder Philip Zinckernagel strode towards the penalty area before feeding the ball to Sarr. After taking one touch to steady himself, the winger thumped a shot across Rafael and into the far corner of the net from an acute angle.

“I can’t say that we didn’t start the game well, we just have to give the credit to Sarr and his team for how well they started with those two astonishing, fantastic goals.

“These kind of goals you just have to applaud.

“Unfortunately, when it goes against you it hurts and it hurts even more when it happens in just one minute and a half.”

– Reading manager Veljko Paunović

He was denied a first-half hat-trick by the assistant’s offside flag after being inches beyond the last defender when attacking a fantastic delivery from full-back Adam Masina, but Reading’s liberal approach to retaining possession combined with the space they were regularly allowing Sarr to exploit ensured he remained a constant threat throughout the opening stages.

Sarr’s quiet second half was an indication that both the player and his team recognised it was a job well done on the goal-scoring front, and a focus on defensive solidity was needed to ensure Reading’s lively duo of Michael Olise and Ovie Ejaria had no genuine opportunities to drag Paunović’s side back into the contest.

A late chance to secure a first career treble came and went when Sarr saw a deflected effort from a corner squirm inches wide of the far post, but the final whistle confirmed that Watford would be moving 12 points clear of third-placed Brentford in the Championship table, meaning a return to the Premier League is now surely a matter of when and not if.

Should Watford go on to seal their top-flight return in the coming weeks, it would be no surprise to see Sarr heavily involved once again in what has to be seen as a testament to his attitude towards what many would have seen as a step down in his career.

There were no tantrums last summer at being denied the chance to remain in the Premier League or any mysterious injuries that ruled him out of games when things were not going so well for Watford, and most importantly a desire to continue his career on a positive trajectory has been present throughout – typified by his excellent recent form under the stewardship of Muñoz.

In December 2019, following Watford’s 2-0 defeat at Anfield in the reverse of the fixture that Sarr would truly establish himself in English football, a video emerged of Liverpool’s Sadio Mané, a fellow product of Génération Foot, talking to Sarr in the tunnel.

After the Senegal team-mates concluded their conversation, Mané turned to Watford’s club captain Troy Deeney and asked him to “take care of my boy” following what was only Sarr’s fifth Premier League start as he continued to adapt to a new country, language and footballing environment.

Should Sarr continue to cause a similar level of havoc as he currently is in the Championship upon Watford’s increasingly expected return to the Premier League, it’s unlikely he’ll need much looking after for long.

Follow us on Twitter @ProstInt





Comments are closed.