Watford’s recent 4-1 victory over Manchester United had many talking points, with the main one surrounding the subsequent sacking of Red Devils’ manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. However, many Watford supporters will be focusing on Ismaila Sarr: he missed a retaken penalty after failing to convert the initial penalty as well, but he more than remedied for his poor spot-kicks by scoring a classy goal to give the Hornets a two-goal lead. Nonetheless, Sarr’s performances as of late have come under question, though the goal against Ronaldo and Co. suggests his post-Xisco-Munoz skid of form is over. With the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United known to have been keeping an eye on Sarr for quite some time now, how has Sarr been performing beyond what the average pair of eyes can see?
Key Statistics This Season
In this campaign, Sarr has scored five goals in 12 appearances, overperforming Expected Goals by 0.71. He is therefore overperforming Open-Play Expected Goals by around 1.5 goals. The numbers show Sarr has been a more-than-efficient finisher.
The 23-year-old struggled to find form in Claudio Ranieri’s first four matches in charge, failing to find the back of the net against Liverpool, Everton, Southampton, and Arsenal. Against the Toffees, once Sarr was subbed off of the pitch, the Hornets scored four times in less than half an hour, raising an occasional question about the place the Club’s most expensive signing has in Ranieri’s side. His starting role was never seriously questioned, as he is simply too talented to not start every match he is fit, but whether he was as effective as he could be most certainly could be doubted.
Under Xisco, both in the Championship and Premier League, Sarr thrived. 10 of Sarr’s 13 goals in the second-tier last season came under Xisco (in the 23 matches he featured in). In the Premier League, Sarr scored four goals in Xisco’s seven matches in charge.
The clash against Manchester United suggests Sarr’s readjustment to life at Vicarage Road under a different head coach is nearing completion. After all, Xisco’s system gave Sarr tremendous freedom on the wing without too many defensive duties, whereas Ranieri demands more defensive work, namely in the high press. There was consequently a learning curve Sarr had to endure.
However, to say Sarr has not been strong when it comes to defensive work would be inaccurate. Even though Watford left-winger Emmanuel Dennis has offered more defensively when it comes to pressures and tackles (Dennis ranks in the top percentile for Premier League wingers this season in pressures per match, at 22.91 [compared to Sarr’s 17.21] and in the top four percent for tackles per match, at 2.39 [compared to Sarr’s 0.52]), there is still some impressive defensive work being done by Sarr too. Sarr ranks in the top four percent of Premier League wingers for “fewest times dribbled past per match,” only getting beat an average of 0.35 times per 90, showing his effectiveness when pressuring. He also ranks highly in pressures in the attacking third, averaging 7.17 pressures in the attacking third per match (in the top 16th percentile).
Sarr has undoubtedly been clinical when it comes to overperforming Expected Goals and also has started to offer Ranieri what he wants on both sides of the ball. However, Sarr’s increased attacking prowess and finishing improvement when compared to his last time in the Premier League needs to be further discussed.
Comparison to 2019/20 Premier League Campaign
Sarr has already equaled his goal tally from the Hornets’ last Premier League campaign in fewer than half the matches. The winger also underperformed expected goals that season by 1.04, signaling he should have been more lethal in front of the net. As discussed above, he has gone from underperforming to overperforming, with the one season in the Championship (where he overperformed Expected Goals by 2.87) already proving to have been an unsuspecting perfect piece to his development.
Statistics beyond Expect Goals further show the improvement he has undergone. In the 2019/20 season, only 29.5% of Sarr’s shots ended on target. This campaign, that figure has skyrocketed to 46.2%, showing his precision has improved. Two seasons ago, he averaged 0.11 goals per shot, compared to 0.19 goals per shot this season, signaling his lethality per strike has increased. In the relegation campaign, he averaged 0.38 goals per shot on target, whereas in the return season, he is averaging 0.42 goals per shot on target, demonstrating how his accuracy (as well as, once more, his precision) has developed for the better.
The Hornets’ desire for him to be one of their key goal-scorers has subsequently led to a slight decrease in his tangible assist output (as well as him averaging one fewer cross per game, as his instruction is to play a bit narrower than under Pearson and test his luck more frequently). But, considering his Expected Assists has decreased by just 0.04 per match, the assist sacrifice is more than just made up for by his increased goalscoring capabilities.
Outlook at Watford
If Sarr continues in the same manner he has started the season and builds off of the goal from Solskjaer’s final match as Manchester United manager, suitors in the upcoming transfer windows will continue to arrive in abundance. Even though his contract runs through 2024, it is hard to imagine that the Hornets will not receive an irresistible offer for his services before that point.
Watford will be hoping to at least hold Sarr until the end of the season and not lose him in January. Doing so will be pivotal in the push for survival. Staying in the Premier League also gives the Hornets extra leverage in negotiations, and they have already previously slapped £40+ million price tags on him (as per Adam Leventhal of The Athletic), so the desired fee will only increase considerably. In the event of relegation, leverage will be lost, but a sizeable fee would still be able to be secured.
Nonetheless, it is hard to see a scenario where Sarr is at Watford beyond this season: he will not want to play another season in the Championship, and unless the Hornets can extend his contract, even if they stay in the Premier League, they will rather sell him for a maximum fee than wait until he has one year left in his contract upon the conclusion of the 2022/23 season.
Whatever happens, Sarr has a tremendously bright future and will be playing Champions League football in the coming years when a transfer does come his way. For now, Hornets’ fans should (as they know) appreciate every second they have with Sarr, for players of his caliber do not usually weather the storm of relegation and drown out the noise of transfers to bigger teams. This is likely his last season at Vicarage Road, though his place fondly in Watford folklore is already secured. And, if trends continue this season, his legacy may exponentially grow.