The following article is extracted from Football News’s 200,000 word guide to the world of French football, The Football News 100 which focused on ranking individuals’ performances over the course of 2018 as a calendar year. To download the whole guide, click here.
The following piece was written in December 2018 and published on the 1st January 2019. Ismaila Sarr was ranked 33rd in the 2017 edition and ranked 30th in our index out of French football’s 100 best players in this year’s Football News 100.
It has been another year of progression for Ismaila Sarr. The Rennes forward has steadily built on the promise he originally showed at Metz, before his move to Brittany in the summer of 2017 and now has the eyes of Europe on him after some standout performances and wonderful goals. The start of 2018 saw Sarr return from a lengthy period out injured, as he successfully put behind him a slightly frustrating start to his Rennes career, to finish the season strongly. Under then Rennes coach Sabri Lamouchi, Sarr was deployed in a variety of positions but seemed to find himself most often in a centre forward role.
Whilst he performed admirably there, it certainly is not a position which lends itself to the maximisation of his best attributes and he often looked isolated or was forced to drop too deep at times. There is no doubt that Sarr’s long-term future is instead in a wider position, the left-wing in particular, even if his dexterity facilitates his playing occasionally on the right. In those wide areas, he can fully unleash his most dangerous attribute; his pace. With or without the ball at his feet, Sarr is one of the quickest in the division and with a genuine love for taking players on, marking him as a daunting prospect for Ligue 1’s defenders.
His agent Thierno Seydi spoke in the summer, “he is very fast with excellent technique. He has the same qualities of (Ousmane) Dembélé of Barcelona (and also formerly of Rennes)”. Whilst his desire to run with the ball is encouraging, developments are required in terms of decision-making as too often Sarr finds himself running down a blind alley or struggles to make the correct decision at the right time. Over the course of the year it has been pleasing to see Sarr acknowledge this and come the close of 2018, there have been dramatic improvements.
It is also easy to forget that Sarr is still only 20-years-old and in just his third season of professional football, so to be playing at the high level that he is serves to annunciate his quality. After finishing the 2017/18 season strongly, helping Rennes to a 5th place finish and qualification for the Europa League, Sarr, as part of the Senegalese squad, headed out to Russia for the World Cup.
Despite Senegal cruelly being denied a chance of progressing to the next stage, due to an inferior discipline record and some questionable play towards the end of the Japan vs Poland game, Sarr still found time to attract glowing praise for his performances. His pace and power caught the eye of scouts from Barcelona and Juventus. Rennes successfully warded off interest in the summer from all potential suitors, however their start to the 2018/19 season was something of a struggle. Sarr remained a bright spot in an ever-increasingly muddled squad.
Goals against Angers, a classic burst down the left-wing before cutting inside and curling an effort into the far top corner, and Marseille, a poacher’s finish, pouncing on a goalkeeping mistake, gave further evidence that he was becoming more clinical in front of goal. He has already matched last season’s goal-scoring tally in the first half of the current campaign. It is the variety of goals that Sarr scores which is impressive. In addition to the aforementioned efforts: runs into the box followed by low composed finishes, delayed runs into the box to lose his marker before firing in and wonderful curling efforts from outside the area.
There are not many areas of the pitch from which he cannot score it seems. With Europa League football came a new audience for Sarr to impress and he has taken the opportunity with both hands. As Rennes just about progressed from their group, the only French team to achieve that this season, Sarr was without doubt the shining light. Few teams could cope with him and it was to his credit that UEFA included him in their Europa League Breakthrough Team of the Group Stages.
This was no doubt helped by a goal of the tournament contender against Jablonec. Collecting the ball on the left, he cut inside and played a one-two with Benjamin André before smashing home the return pass on the volley into the top corner from 20 yards. The finish was sublime, the power was immense, but the technique to hit the high bouncing ball that well was something else.
He followed that up with another wonder strike against Astana in the final group game hitting a powerful finish, again into the top corner, from 25 yards out this time. Finishing the year strongly with noticeably improved performances, under new Rennes coach Julien Stéphan, has meant that for the third time in his short career to date, Sarr is facing a barrage of interest from some of the biggest team’s across Europe. Arsenal are reportedly the latest side to join the queue, forcing Rennes to indicate they would not entertain offers less than €30m. If his performances continue in their recent manner, that valuation will only increase at a rapid rate in 2019.