From the Handbook: Ismaïla Sarr
This profile was originally published in the Scouted Football Handbook: Volume II, released in May 2019. The print version has now sold out, but you can buy the digital edition for £3 here.
CAREER IN REVIEW
Ismaïla Sarr has only played domestic football in France’s top flight – for FC Metz and Stade Rennais – but at the ripe age of 21, looks to have outgrown what is commonly accepted as the weakest of Europe’s top five leagues. Sarr’s development has so far taken a rather ordinary path, one trodden by plenty of young players before him. He broke through at a medium-sized French club, FC Metz, with a history of developing Ligue 1-standard players. Then, a smattering of substitute appearances, followed by the gradual recognition of his skill, resulted in Sarr becoming a regular for Metz in 2016/17.
Four goals in his last eight games of the 2016/17 season saw Rennes come calling. €18 million is a steep fee for most top division clubs across Europe, but for a French club, it was huge. A signal of intent, and of faith in Sarr’s potential. Their investment was not in vain. After a troublesome, yet reasonable first season, in which he was ruled out for months with a tendon problem, Sarr has certainly repaid the club’s gamble this term. A lengthy run in the Europa League to the last 16 – the furthest in the club’s history – and a league campaign in which Rennes have threatened the European competition places ever since the turn of the year, have both been propelled by Sarr’s contributions in front of goal.
Ismaïla Sarr has won more fouls (89) than any other Under-21 player in Europe’s top five leagues in 2018/19
Double figures for goals scored and falling just shy of double figures for assists in all competitions, as well as the winning of a handful of penalties, Sarr has been one of Julien Stéphan’s key players. That is something which is easier said than done, particularly in a team which is not short of attacking options; M’Baye Niang, Hatem Ben Arfa and Benjamin Bourigeaud are all capable of stealing a limelight that has instead been decisively Sarr’s.
STYLE OF PLAY
If not for the existence of a certain Kylian Mbappé, Sarr could quite comfortably be Ligue 1’s great accelerator. He is less of a dribbler and more of a galloper. His stride is enormous but despite being over six feet tall, he seems to glide easily through opposition challenges. If he is not going past an opponent, he is being brought down by them. Watching him in full flow, it becomes apparent why he wins so many penalties and free-kicks in dangerous areas. He does not hesitate to take players on.
Sarr is less of a winger in the traditional sense and instead a great counter-attacking asset capable of dribbling near the touchline or in-field. That does not mean he is not strong in one-on-one situations; in this area he is unique and quite cunning. He tends to pull wide in instances where a counter-attacking opportunity is not available, and opts to draw in his opponent by slowing himself. Sarr knocks the ball past his opponent and sets off after they have fallen for his invitation, and on a couple of these occasions – more than enough to be considered a fluke – he has nutmegged the defender making the pressing action. It is cheeky, it is sometimes imperfect, but it is certainly entertaining to watch. He is not always successful in these endeavours, and failure can leave him looking foolish and Rennes vulnerable, particularly when there is a simple pass available but he fails to lift his head and scan his surroundings. When his mind is made up, he can be stubborn in trying to implement his ideas.
Operating on either flank, Sarr is best described as an inside forward. He can drive inside from wide positions, and is more than willing to do so. It is in these positions in-between the lines that the 21-year-old has a trick up his sleeve. His inclination to rattle off shots from the 20 to 30-yard range is typical of his style: unpredictable. The variety of strikes he can pull off from distance show his undeniable class. He has scored several such stunning goals since moving to Rennes. His volleyed pile-driver against FK Jablonec in the Europa League is one of the most technically brilliant goals scored by any player this season. While holding off the challenge of his opponent, he swung his right leg at the bouncing ball and it arrowed into the top of the net from outside the box. A rocket against FC Astana soon followed, as well as a beautifully-curled effort against RC Strasbourg in the league.
His tendency to beat players and to take on audacious shots is emblematic of a player with massive confidence, yet this confidence seems to be sporadic. While he does have irrefutable talent, he is yet to perform in a truly big game. Rennes’ 3-1 defeat of Arsenal in the Europa League saw Sarr clinch the game with a late header, but his impact on the game was overshadowed by the magic of Hatem Ben Arfa. In the return leg, it was clear that Arsenal had more class at their disposal, and he largely ghosted through the game. The same can be said in the league. In huge games against Paris Saint-Germain and LOSC Lille, the platform was set for Sarr to signal his ambition intentions, but he frustrated.
The Senegalese winger is a player with excellent athleticism, brilliant individual skill and huge confidence in his own ability. He seems tactically sound as an inside forward in Rennes’ system, but it would be interesting to see him deployed in a different role elsewhere, to see how he would cope. Outside of that, he is playing brilliantly and enjoying a break-out season. Yet still you feel there is more for him to give. He has the skillset of a player who could easily be more prolific, more explosive and could contribute to more phases of play rather than just being an attacking menace in the final third.
FORECAST FOR THE FUTURE
Sarr is one of several exciting players at mid-table French sides, but his ceiling is higher than that. He is in his second season with Stade Rennais but, at 21, is crucially different to his team-mates: he is a saleable asset, and a very sizeable one.
Should Rennes receive a generous offer for his services, it might be difficult to turn down. He has had a considerable impact on the side this season but he is not their sole talisman. That said, they are likely to finish lower in Ligue 1 this season than they did last campaign, when Sarr’s injured tendon ensured he played a lesser role.
There is no guarantee he would be a success elsewhere, but the most fool-proof way of ensuring he would be impactful would be to play to his clear and obvious strengths.