In Focus: Reds must be wary of Watford's shining Sarr
Throughout the summer of 2020, Liverpool were keenly pursuing Watford winger Ismaila Sarr — but a deal never did quite get over the line.
Now, a full 14 months on from that failed pursuit, the Reds will come face-to-face with the Senegalese star once again as Jurgen Klopp takes his troops to Vicarage Road on Saturday lunchtime
Will the 23-year-old, who already has four goals in just seven Premier League games this term, provide Liverpool with another first-hand demonstration of what they are missing out on?
Back in the big time
Sarr certainly had his moments during what ultimately proved to be an ill-fated maiden Premier League campaign in 2019-20.
Signed for club-record fee from Rennes that summer (reported to be in the region of £30million), the youngster was expected to play a key role in the Hornets’ survival bid.
However, both Javi Gracia and his replacement Quique Sanchez Flores initially used Sarr as an impact sub, with his first league start not coming until late November — scoring in a 2-1 defeat away to Southampton.
From there, he played a pivotal role in Watford’s upturn, scoring twice and assisting twice in a five-game run where 13 points from a possible 15 saw them surge out of the relegation zone.
The best was yet to come however, with the winger delivering a game-changing performance against runaway champions Liverpool.
Catching the eye
It is little wonder that Sarr is rated so highly by Klopp considering the manner in which he single-handedly destroyed the Reds on February 29, 2020.
Facing an opponent who had won their previous 18 games and were on course to go through the full campaign unbeaten, the Senegalese trickster put the champions-elect to the sword with two goals and an assist in a 3-0 win.
His devastating pace was on full show as he tormented a previously imperious Liverpool backline — most memorably when racing clear of the mighty Virgil van Dijk before deftly lobbing Alisson for his second strike of the evening.
Former England midfielder Owen Hargreaves lavished praise on Sarr in his post-match punditry.
Hargreaves said: “We know he’s quick and we know he’s got a big physical presence. But today in terms of end product he was outstanding.
“If he has a few more days like that, then the same way Sadio Mane left Southampton to go to Liverpool, if he plays like that against more teams then he could easily leave Watford.”
As things panned out, Sarr’s brilliance was not enough to keep the Hornets in the top flight and their drop to the Championship seemed to make his summer exit an inevitability.
That was not what Watford had in mind however, with the club determined to keep hold of their prized asset unless an offer too good to refuse was received.
Liverpool were strongly linked, along with several of Europe’s top sides, yet no deal was reached and the winger was forced to instead prepare himself for a stint in England’s notoriously competitive second tier.
In the past, there have been countless examples of players ‘downing tools’ when their anticipated big-money switch does not work out — but there were no such issues in Sarr’s case.
The forward chipped in with 13 goals and five assists in his 39 Championship starts to help fire the Hornets back into the promised land at the first time of asking.
His efforts were recognised with the club’s Player of the Year award, showcasing just how much his fellow staff and team-mates value his contribution.
A thorn in the side
What has been most impressive about Sarr since returning to the top tier has been the sheer volume of his output.
His 11 shots on target from 17 total attempts is the second-highest tally in the division, only bettered by two-time Golden Boot winner Mohamed Salah.
That directness is further reflected in his dribbling statistics, with both his 26 attempted (ninth) and 18 completed (seventh) take-ons ranking him inside the division’s top 10 dribblers.
It is not just with the ball where Sarr gives Watford impetus, either — his six possessions won inside the attacking third again places him inside the league’s 10 highest performers, level alongside the likes of Jack Grealish and Michail Antonio.
All things told, the Senegalese speedster is a determined presser willing to chase lost causes but one who also has the ability to punish sides with devastating regularity.
It is little wonder there has been so much interest in his services.
Though it remains to be seen whether Sarr will remain at Watford beyond January, new Hornets boss Claudio Ranieri will certainly be relishing the opportunity to work alongside him.
The 69-year-old Italian famously guided Leicester to the unlikeliest of Premier League titles with high energy, counter-attacking football — something that will suit the wide man to a tee.
Tending to favour a 4-4-2 throughout his career, it will be interesting to see if Ranieri can get his new talisman operating in a similar vein to how Riyad Mahrez did during that famous Foxes campaign.
Providing Sarr continues to apply the same workrate of previous weeks, it is likely that his new coach will encourage him to express himself and play with a freedom that should terrorise opposition defences.
Furthermore, Ranieri boasts the sensational record of winning four out of his five Premier League home clashes with Liverpool.
If he is to extend that impressive run against the Reds this weekend, expect Sarr to be at the forefront of affairs.