Le50 2017 – Malang Sarr
In the 2015/16 season under Claude Puel Nice burned brightly with a fantastic attack before calming a little to end in fourth; last season they went even better, despite losing their top two goalscorers, to spend most of the first half of the season at the top of the table. They couldn’t hold on to that, but ended nine points clear in third – and a lot of that was down to a cracking defence who mopped up and took names while the new attackers bedded in and the youthful midfield developed at a great rate.
Key to that frequently three-man defence was a 17-year-old club product, Malang Sarr. In his first senior season – not signing as a professional until November, by which point he already had a dozen Ligue 1 starts under his belt – he was a key part of the team that looked to be screwing all the predictions with a scintillating start to the season under new coach Lucien Favre.
Despite his height and position, Sarr is not – yet – great in the air, but his near 90% pass completion rate shows him as a ‘modern’ defender, more likely to play his way out of trouble than hoick it long and into the stands. His maturity in his first senior season has been breath-taking – and his current weaknesses, in the air, in the tackle, look likely to be allayed.
As fairy-tales go, scoring in your first senior game – the winner, no less – in a match doubling as an emotional tribute to the victims of a terrorist attack in your home town, is about as good as it gets – Sarr with a crashing far-post header after Jean Seri’s free-kick on the hour mark against Rennes in game 1. While that was it goal-wise, Sarr provided a couple of assists – most notably for fellow defender Paul Baysse in a 2-0 win over OL – and played a large part in the defensive organisation that Nice employed in a series of often narrow victories that kept them on top of the pile.
Through this time, Sarr was partnered with Baysse and also Dante, much more experienced players, but when Baysse missed a large part of the first half of the season, it looked like the teenager was keeping Dante’s impulses in check rather than the other way around. It was at this point that Sarr observed in an interview « Il n’y a pas d’âge dans le football » – basically, “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” – and despite injury and a drop in form affecting the second half of his season, he went on to further demonstrate his maturity by becoming a sponsor of an association working in his old stomping ground of Moulins in Nice, saying “when I was little, I would have loved it if footballers had come to help with my school-work; it would have helped me a lot”. Apparently he is good at geometry, among other things – and took his Bac a year early.
After captaining the U18s, Sarr now has his first call-up for les Espoirs, several age categories over where you might expect to find him, still just 18. With a podium spot, Nice have the opportunity to play Champions League football next season and whether Favre plays three or four at the back there will definitely be space for the young left-sided centre-back to make a further mark.