Ligue 1 Talent Hunting: Ibrahim Sangaré
For a club that hasn’t finished with more than 50 points in a season since 2012–13, Toulouse have given minutes to some interesting young talents over the years. Serge Aurier was a highly promising defender with his combination of athleticism and ability on the ball before his move to PSG in 2014. Issa Diop was logging huge minutes as a center-back when he was only 18 years, and while there were (and still are) questions about his ability as a passer, it was clear that he was going to make a move to a bigger club sooner than later. He's now at West Ham. Alban Lafont had even more hype. He was thought of by some as a goalkeeping prodigy when he started for Toulouse at just 16 years old. The fact all three of these players plied their trade at Toulouse emphasizes Ligue 1’s greatest selling point. No matter how far down the table you go, you’re going to find young talents that peak your curiosity.
All of that brings us to Ibrahim Sangaré, who’s going to be next on the list of intriguing talents from Toulouse to make a move to a bigger club. Sangare already has a reputation as someone who could be a high upside bet from France worth targeting in the near future, and the likes of Atalanta and Brighton & Hove Albion reportedly logged transfer offers during the summer for his services. Sangare‘s improved performances this season in a deeper role (before his toe injury halted his momentum) turned him from a niche Ligue 1 prospect into one who's likely heading to greener pastures in the near future.
It should be noted that Toulouse have been one of the worst teams in Ligue 1. They’ve been out shot by nearly eight shots per match (9.5 to 17.4), no other team in Ligue 1 comes close to having such a disparity in shot share from either the positive or negative end of the spectrum. Toulouse are in the bottom three in expected goal difference per match at -0.57. The fact that this team is four points above 18th place despite being out shot and out created to such a massive degree is a bit of a minor miracle. Having an anemic attack with a defense that’s constantly on their heels means that analyzing Sangare means taking some of his numbers and properly contextualizing them. His on-ball contribution, for example, is stymied be the relatively low likelihood of racking up deep progressions for a team that rarely had the ball.
More than anything, we’re looking to see if there have been enough moments to justify a bigger club allocating resources for a potential transfer in the future. Is Sangare good enough that, if you put him on a team with a higher collective talent base, he won't take things off the table and perhaps even add some delectable dishes of his own. The biggest question is Sangare’s passing acumen. The standard of passing needed at the midfield position for good to great clubs is quite high. If Sangare’s going to truly pop as a young talent, he’ll need, at the very least, to be slightly above average as a passer and possibly significantly better than that.
The good news is that Sangare has shown enough glimpses to suggest that he's already a decent passer with room for upside in the near future. As a deeper midfielder in Toulouse's double pivot, he'll often times come and collect the ball near the center backs, even forming a back three on occasion. If there's no immediate pressure, Sangare has no qualms dribbling the ball forward until he gets approached by a marker. There are a couple of things that I appreciate about Sangare: more times than not he's going to try and attempt a pass that bypasses the defensive structure of the opponent, and that he doesn't seem to stutter with his passing when he makes his mind up. There's no proverbial hitch in Sangare's passing golf swing.
His match against Monaco was probably the best example of Sangare's upside as a deep midfielder. Granted, Monaco haven't been good this season, so it's not as if he was playing against elite opposition, but he was totally in his element making short-ish passes that found teammates in space between the lines. None of these passes were super difficult, but the fact he was making them with regularity was noteworthy.
Sangare isn't a game-breaking caliber of passer as it stands now, which is fine considering that he's only 20 years old. He's shown flashes of being able to make really difficult passes on the move, and the fact that he has the awareness to at least attempt them means something. It's just that his hit rate on these type of passes is not quite good enough yet. Perhaps in a couple of years as he matures and gets even more game experience under his belt, he'll become better in this department, which would be a scary proposition. A man at his size that could combine athleticism with a feathery touch in the passing department would eat people alive.
It is hard to ignore that Sangare is a large human being, standing at around 6'3. That becomes even more apparent when he decides to take on players and dribble by them. For a player as tall as he is, he doesn't look clumsy when he tries to beat his man off the dribble. He has pretty good coordination on the ball even when he's pressured. There are times when Sangare bites off a little more than he can chew and loses possession in the middle third, but it's fun watching him rumble. On the play below, Sangare has the ball near the touchlines and is being pressured quickly, but a simple shift to his right and he's gone.
He's even broken some ankles with his change of direction.
It's a little harder to figure out how good of a defender Sangare is, in part because quantifying defense is hard and he plays on a team that bleeds shots and scoring chances. A lot of his defensive work, whether it's pressures or tackles and interceptions, comes in his own third while Toulouse are hemmed in. Sangare's defensive output even when adjusting for Toulouse being a sub 50% possession side is impressive, and I just come back to the fact that the guy is just an imposing figure who also happens to have really solid mobility, which should allow clubs that play possession based football options on how to best use Sangare defensively once they lose the ball. Here, he is mirroring Allan Saint-Maximin, one of the most athletically gifted wide players that Ligue 1 has seen over the years, step for step before he dispossesses the ball from him. That's no easy feat.
There are a number of things to like about Sangare's game. He's a comfortable passer from deeper areas who has at least shown the willingness to try high level passes. He's an imposing figure because of his size and functional athleticism, and he's able to carry the ball off the dribble because it's really hard to take the ball away from a 6'3 dude who isn't a stiff. There are the flaws to his game that I've already touched on, and one major one that I haven't. His positioning off the ball in attack can leave a little bit to be desired. When a teammate has the ball, he'll get into a position between the man on the ball and another teammate close to him which eliminates a potential passing angle. He could also stand to be a bit more aggressive sometimes in stepping out 5-7 yards from his original starting point to receive passes and move the ball forward when in his own third. But it's fair to point out that Toulouse's attack stinks, and that most of these tendencies could very well be eliminated if he plays on a team with better talent and coaching.
When trying to project how good Sangare can be, I came back to Andre Zambo Anguissa. Granted, Anguissa has had his rough moments at Fulham from a defensive standpoint (who hasn't on that club), but he was really good last season on a very good Marseille side. On a team with Florian Thauvin, Dimitri Payet and Morgan Sanson, Anguissa wasn't tasked with having to unlock defenses. Rather, he could just maintain the flow of possession, and make short but incisive passes to one of the attackers to work their magic. It's easy to see that Sangare could operate in a similar role when he makes the step up to a bigger club, and do what Anguissa did defensively which was putting out fires immediately off of live ball turnovers. There's even a little bit of similarities from their respective statistical outputs, which is impressive on Sangare's end considering he's on an inferior squad and is over two years younger than Anguissa.
I am on the Ibrahim Sangare bandwagon. I just think that there's legitimate untapped potential to his game that could see him go to another level. If he's able to hone in on his passing, he could play on a very good club in the next 2-3 years. Even if Sangare doesn't make an appreciable jump in performance and this is more or less what he is throughout the next 6-8 years, he's still shown enough to where I'd feel comfortable having him on decent-good teams like Marseille or RB Leipzig in a supporting role offensively. The 90th percentile outcome for Ibrahim Sangare as a player is tantalizing enough to where I am really fascinated with his development and just how many souls he can destroy on his path to potential greatness.