Nigel Pearson was appointed as the new Watford manager at the start of December. Since then Watford have dragged themselves from a perilous position back into the fight for survival. Ismaïla Sarr has been a revelation under Pearson and a key player illustrated by the fact Watford lost all three games in his absence. However, with the Senegalese winger in the team the Hornets have won five games under Pearson with four goals and four assists. Despite being brought in the Summer the 22-year-old looks to have adjusted to the Premier League and maybe exactly what Watford need to stay in the Premier League.
This tactical analysis/ scout report will break down the strengths of Sarr and how he is perfect for Watford’s 4-2-3-1 system. The analysis will explore how Pearson’s tactics are playing to Sarr’s natural ability making him a real threat for the Hornets.
Since Pearson was appointed, Watford have opted for a 4-2-3-1 system. With this formation, it enables the Hornets to be fluid in transitioning from defence to attack. They can do this because defending the two holding payers provides a defensive block in front of the backline. The two wide players will then drop deep setting up two backs of four. Another tactical change Pearson has made is to Abdoulaye Doucouré’s role. The Frenchman now has an attacking midfield position for the Hornets which enables him to utilise his attacking qualities. This means that when defending the 4-2-3-1 shifts to a 4-4-2, enabling Watford to have to players to press in the middle of the pitch when defending.
For Sarr, this means he has to be disciplined. His role when defending is to cover the opposition’s full-back and provide support to Watford’s right-back. This is so it does not leave Watford with a two vs one to defend. It also allows Watford to double up on a wide player if the winger tucks in like Sadio Mané has in this example. Notice how tight he is to Andrew Robertson. This lets him to effectively track the Liverpool player if he was to make a run.
Sarr’s defensive role also requires him to slightly tuck inside. This has two benefits for Watford. The first of which is it prevents the opposing team from playing a ball into a central position. As the example shows Sarr is positioned so Serge Aurier can’t receive the ball and turn out. The second benefit to Watford is it stops Son Heung-min from running inside and getting a shot off on his favoured right foot. This is because he has no space to run into. However looking at this particular scenario it does leave one risk for Watford, which is Son being one vs one again Adrian Mariappa. This can be dangerous if a winger is left one vs one against the full-back regularly as he may be able to find a player in the box. Hence why Sarr is often tight to the right-back when defending.
Deep tactics benefit Sarr
The tactic of sitting deep against teams is a risk from Pearson as it requires the team to keep its structure. It also encourages the opponents to attack, with the calibre of players the Premier League has, teams, will inevitably create a few chances if Watford are not able to form attacks of their own. Sarr has become a crucial part of this as his raw pace and ability to drive with the ball enables Watford to transition defence to attack.
The reason sitting deep benefits Sarr is it means that teams have to push higher up the pitch, this inevitably means that there is more space to run in. In the example below Étienne Capoue intercepts a ball inside and as Sarr is deep he can play the ball out wide to him. This is the cue for Watford to break forward as three other players quickly get up the pitch. This example highlights one of the winger best strength as he can pick the ball up midway in his half and drive past three to get to the byline for a cross. This is a key asset as he is comfortable picking up the ball deep and taking on players in fact 22% of what Sarr does for Watford is individual work. The winger also only loses the ball 2.3% of the time when he accelerates with the ball, therefore demonstrating that Pearson is encouraging him to drive with the ball.
Picking the ball up and turning
This tactical analysis/scout report has mentioned how Sarr can transition Watford from defence to attack when he is facing forward and has space to drive with the ball. What the winger is also good at is picking up the ball with his back to goal. At 6ft the winger is also effective at being able to get his body in the way of his opponents and quickly turn past the defender. This provides another way for Watford to transition forward.
The example below shows a lofted ball being played into Sarr. He has his back to the Aston Villa player but can hold the ball up in time for Mariappa to advance forward. This is so they can target the area behind Aston Villa where Sarr can utilise his pace to get down the line. Because of his ability to hold up the ball, it enables Watford to switch the play effectively and get players forward. It also demonstrates Sarr’s composure on the ball as in this example he is quickly surrounded by three Villa players and is able to make the correct decision.
As Watford have a deep initial position it encourages teams to press higher, this is perfect for Sarr. His pace will allow him to break away from defenders. All this means for Watford is they just need to find a ball through and he will get on to it. Looking at the 3-0 win over Liverpool in particular despite the fact he is stationary and a couple of yards behind Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren there is no catching the youngster and he calmly doubles Watford’s advantage. This type of position is what Watford try and capitalise on as once he is in that scenario he is likely to score.
What this goal shows is not only his ability to remain composed in a pressure situation but also his finishing ability. 44.5% of Sarr’s shots are on target with 18.5% resulting in a goal. His acceleration enables him to get into dangerous positions faster giving the winger that extra time to pick his spot.
How he uses his acceleration
What is impressive about Sarr is how he uses his acceleration. The scout report has mentioned how is able to drive with the ball out of defence but what he is also good at is using a big first touch to engage his opponents and then go past his opponents. This little difference in a bigger touch allows him to get a cross into the box or draw the foul.
In the image below it shows how effective it can be as touch into space means he is able to get away from Patrick van Aanholt and get a cross in the box. It is the reason 40.6% of his crosses are accurate. This stat would also be higher but this example also indicates a problem Watford sometimes have, as even though they have four players in the box Crystal Palace are able to put the ball out for a corner. This is because no Watford player has been able to get in front of their marker making it difficult for Sarr to find a teammate.
Watford target one vs one opportunity
Sarr is extremely quick there is no doubt about that but what is impressive is the technical ability with it. It is one thing being able to kick the ball forward and run on to it but Sarr is equally as good at running around and past players. With a one vs one success rate of 66.5%, this means that when Sarr takes on an opponent he is more likely to beat them and because of the areas he is taking on these duels he is in an area to be effective., it is no surprise that Watford tries to get Sarr into these positions as often as possible.
They do this by switching the ball as often as possible. Both Sarr and the left-winger for Watford will stay out wide which will stretch their opponents. This then enables the midfield to switch the ball effectively. Using the example below it highlights that because Sarr has a wide starting position it forces the defender to move out of shape. With Sarr’s first touch he is able to take the ball into the area left by the defender. In this particular occasion, his shot is saved by the goalkeeper but shows the danger of the switch.
Area to improve
At 22, the Senegal International still has areas to improve for him to reach his peak. For Sarr it is his lack of awareness at times. As this analysis has explained Pearson encourages the youngster to run with the ball, however, Sarr occasionally is not always aware of how many players are around him.
In the first example below Sarr has done well to win the ball back off Georginio Wijnaldum. However, he is not aware that Fabinho is closing him down. On this particular occasion, it was on the halfway line and the team had time to recover. However, as the second image shows that Sarr is trying to break out from a dangerous position and is not aware of Luke Shaw. On this occasion, Sarr got away with it as his pace meant he was just able to get to the ball before Daniel James and could then release the ball to a teammate.
This tactical analysis/ scout report has looked at how Ismaïla Sarr has become a key player for Watford. The young winger has been the spark that Watford has been missing for the majority of the season and could be the difference that keeps them in the Premier League. It may have taken Sarr a while to adjust to life in England but with a particularly eye-catching performance against Liverpool, it is clear that the winger has talent. If Sarr can continue to put in the performance he has to date then he has the potential to develop into a top player.