Le50 2017 – Ismaïla Sarr
When Ismaila Sarr made his full international debut for Senegal against Namibia in September 2016, entering the fray late on as a substitute for Sadio Mané, the symbolism was not lost on the watching Senegal fans, as “the next Sadio Mané” replaced the current incarnation.
For Metz fans, that symbolism was stronger still, both players having followed the same path from Génération Foot, the Senegalese club with whom Metz have a very productive partnership, to north-eastern France. Mané played just over 20 matches for Metz before the club received an offer that they could not refuse. The same may well happen for Sarr this summer, but not before he has already had the chance to make a big impact for Metz and on Ligue 1.
As a child, Sarr’s obsession with playing football effectively caused him to be excluded from school. Taking on roles as an apprentice tailor and in his aunt’s call centre, he would take advantage of being sent on errands, or even close up shop early, in order to have a kick around.
Moving through the youth teams of local clubs ASC Brésil and ASC Linguère, Sarr eventually joined Génération Foot and, at just 17, was one of their star players as they won back-to-back promotions and qualified for Africa’s equivalent of the Europa League. International recognition came at the same time as he starred in Senegal’s U23 team which reached the semi-finals of the 2015 AFCON.
At Génération Foot, according to Sarr’s mother, “he became another person… in terms of his vocation but also his behaviour”. Following in the footsteps of Mané, Papiss Cissé and Diafra Sakho, ‘Izo’ made the move to Metz, signing a five-year contract in July 2016.
Last season can quite reasonably be split into two halves for Sarr. Despite a great start – coming on as a substitute against Lille in the first match of the season and immediately winning a penalty – his first few months were frustrating, for him and for Metz’s fans. Playing on either wing, Sarr excited with his speed and willingness to run with the ball, but confounded with his Walcottesquely poor decision-making, too often running into blind alleys, failing to make the obvious pass or failing to find his man when the pass was attempted. Tall but strong, skilful but clumsy, he looked a bulkier but lesser version of Ousmane Dembélé.
In the winter two things happened. First, Sarr’s agent arranged for his client to wear the correct-sized football boots (Sarr’s crippling shyness having prevented him from telling anyone that he was wearing boots 1.5 sizes too small, causing him to keep losing his footing). Secondly, he was included in Senegal’s senior squad for the 2017 AFCON, at 18 the youngest player in the whole competition. Two substitute appearances and one start (as well as a goal and an assist against Libya as he won his second cap in a pre-tournament friendly) helped him to grow a little more in stature.
He returned from the AFCON a more mature, more confident player and he and Metz immediately reaped the rewards. In his first post-AFCON start Sarr scored his first Metz goal and won a penalty in a 2-1 win over Dijon. The goal was the first of five that he would go on to score over the next dozen games, three of which were goal of the season contenders: his first-minute goal against Saint-Etienne, cutting in from the left before unleashing a powerful curling shot past Stéphane Ruffier, was arguably surpassed by his spectacular acrobatic scissor kick against Caen, which was surely surpassed by his goal against bitter rivals Nancy, controlling a high clearance well inside his own half with a velvet touch and out-sprinting the whole defence, a quick change of direction leaving one opponent on the floor, before slotting home.
That goal, in a virtuoso performance which included nutmegging Benoît Pedretti, sealed his place in Grenat hearts as, not for the first time in the season, embarrassed opponents were reduced to hacking Sarr down before he sprinted away from them. Not surprisingly for such a targeted man, Sarr won four penalties over the campaign, accounting for four of his assists, the other coming from a pin-point cross to Cheick Diabaté in an almost-game-changing substitute appearance against PSG.
Sarr is still raw, his coach Philippe Hinschberger noting that “our objective is to work on stamina, thinking about the collective – his partners, his short game when there is less space.” But his development over the course of the season, as he has adjusted to life away from home, improved his French and become more tactically savvy, has already been phenomenal. No surprise, then, that clubs including Rennes, Lille, Marseille, Newcastle and even Barcelona have been linked with him.
Those in the know in Senegal have long said that Sarr, whom many expect eventually to move into a second striker role, has the potential to be better than Mané. He still has a way to go but, in the image of his style of play, he is moving forward, at some speed.