Unquestionably Brilliant... (On his Day)
Jack Ottman on losing the talent that is Ismaïla Sarr
There has been plenty of debate amongst Watford fans about how successful Watford’s all-time record signing has been, even before he left. Now the curtain has finally come down on Ismaïla Sarr’s tumultuous journey at Vicarage Road, I thought it would be a good time to assess his time here in its entirety.
When we signed him, it was a statement of intent. We had just finished 11th and reached an FA Cup final and were looking to push on to the next level and cement our claim as ‘the best of the rest’. The time it took to finally put pen to paper only added to the drama, but when we finally signed Sarr two days before the start of the season, there was plenty of excitement. Signing a young, pacy Senegalese winger who had played in Europe the previous season for a club-record fee of around £25-30m (depending on which reports you believe) was enough to get the juices flowing for even the most pessimistic Watford fan.
However, even from the start, and maybe with the benefit of hindsight, there were signs that the signing might not pan out as planned. The first issue was that the manager at the time, Javi Gracia, simply did not play with wingers. Not that that ended up being an issue, as by the time Sarr was fully fit Gracia had already been shown the exit door. Hardly the period of stability in which you would hope to bed in your record signing.
He scored his first League goal in what turned out to be Quique Sánchez Flores’ last game: a dreadful loss away at fellow strugglers Southampton. After a little over three months and just two League starts, Sarr was already on to his third Watford head coach – welcome to Watford, Ismaïla! However, despite the chaos going on at the club, it was under Nigel Pearson that Sarr played his best football in a Watford shirt. Playing as a traditional winger in a 4-3-3, we started to see what Sarr really had to offer as he scored twice and notched three assists over a busy Christmas/New Year period, and it was in this context he gave us one of the greatest nights I’ve seen at Vicarage Road. He was the star man, scoring twice and inches away from an unforgettable hat-trick, as we dismantled the then-unstoppable and unbeaten Liverpool side 3-0 in what would turn out to be the final home game before the season was paused because of the Covid pandemic.
Unfortunately for him, and for the club, that would be the peak of his Watford career. He was unquestionably brilliant on his day, but you can count on one hand the number of those days he had during his time here, and most of them were in the Championship. A brilliant 45 minutes in an opening day victory over Villa on our Premier League return and an incredible goal from inside his own half away at West Brom the next season were examples of his quality, but those moments were few and far between.
It should be said that he played a big role in our promotion back to the Premier League at the first time of asking and he thrived particularly under Xisco Muñoz, once again playing as a winger in a 4-3-3, scoring 13 goals including the one which sealed our promotion at home to Millwall. However, a club like Watford doesn’t spend over £25m on a player for a handful of match-winning performances in the Championship, and although those circumstances were largely out of his control, it will still impact how the signing is viewed in the long term by Watford fans.
For me personally, he will go down as one of the most frustrating players I’ve ever seen. He clearly has the quality and the pace to be a top player, but he just lacks either the confidence or application. I always thought if he had Ken Sema’s drive and determination to try and take on the player every time he had the ball, that would have taken him to the next level. His personality also doesn’t seem to fit with the type of player he is trying to be. He is extremely quiet and seems, from the outside at least, to be a very shy character, but a winger like him needs to have a certain arrogance, or at least supreme confidence, to thrive in the position.
As previously mentioned, circumstances also worked against him. He joined a team which, due to reasons way out of his control, was on the start of a downward trajectory and he was fighting a losing battle from the start. The financial impact of the pandemic meant that he was unlikely to leave after the relegation in his first season and a largely underwhelming season back in the Premier League, combined with the hefty price tag we wanted to recoup, meant that we hung onto him after our second relegation too. To his credit, he never seemed to kick up a fuss, but maybe he should’ve done. We would have been forced to move on from him and he could have kick-started his career elsewhere.
The promotion in 2020-21 justified hanging on to him after relegation and we undoubtedly thought keeping him in 2022-23 would have the same impact. Hindsight tells us that was a mistake as the season, and his Watford career, petered out disappointingly. With just one year remaining on his contract and another season in the Championship beckoning, all parties agreed it would be best to finally part ways. It feels somewhat like the end of an era with his departure to Marseille, along with the sale of João Pedro, and Watford back to where they were when Gino Pozzo arrived back in the summer of 2012, mid-table in the Championship.
There will be largely a feeling of what could’ve been for Sarr at Watford. He has already shown glimpses of the type of player he can be in his first few games back in France. He played a brilliant pass through for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to score in a Champions League qualifier, and also grabbed an assist in his league debut for Marseille off the bench.
Ismaïla Sarr will ultimately be classified as a terrible signing because of the price tag and subsequent events but I think it was more of a case of the wrong player at the wrong time, rather than a reflection of his quality. Either way, it certainly doesn’t look like we’ll be breaking the transfer record again any time soon, so like Nathan Ellington the ‘record signing’ dark cloud will be hanging over him for a while.