When Issa Diop made the move from Toulouse to West Ham over the summer, I couldn’t help but think a little about Malang Sarr. What made Diop a curious prospect was that as a center-back, he’s been logging extensive minutes since age 18. Even given that Ligue 1 is a league that is more conducive to young talent, playing nearly 2000 minutes at 18 years old is quite noteworthy. While it was fair to wonder just how good he was when he made his move to the Premier League, it was hard not to be optimistic for Diop given that he didn’t drown in Ligue 1 when he was tossed into the deep end as a teenager.
Malang Sarr is in a similar boat. Sarr has played over 6000 Ligue 1 minutes spread over the last three seasons, with his 2016–17 season being of particular note given that he played over 2000 minutes on a 3rd place club. Given the amount of turnover that Nice has had over the past few transfer windows, along with Sarr being so young at a position of need, it’s surprising that he’s still there. Going back to Diop, if one was to compare where each player was at their development in their 3rd season in Ligue 1, the general consensus would be that Sarr is the more well rounded CB.
As for this season, Sarr has once again been a staple in the starting XI for Nice. The quality of talent on the squad has been in decline over the past three seasons, and that’s reflected in their decline in both shot and xG differential. Nice’s non-penalty xG difference per game of -0.21 ranks 14th in the league and their -1.6 shot differential also ranks 14th. The only saving grace is that if you’re going to be bad, it’s better to do it with lots of young talent at hand. The average age of a Ligue 1 squad, weighted for minutes played, is 26.4 years old, and Nice clock in at a staggeringly young 24.6.
What also makes Sarr an interesting figure is that among CBs in the 18-21 age bracket, he’s one that doesn’t get a lot of press. That’s understandable given Nice’s slide, but it does make one wonder just how good Sarr is at season three of his development. It’s hard to evaluate center backs via data given that their production is tied heavily to team context and the type of role they’re being deployed in. More than anything, center back radars are more useful for interpreting style of play. With those caveats acknowledged, Sarr’s statistical output looks fairly promising for a 20 year old.
Sarr’s high pressure output is apparent when watching tape of him. All three of Nice’s CBs, including Dante and Christophe Herelle, record significantly higher than average pressure output, but Sarr is on the higher end of the trio. He’ll use his mobility and race out to pressure the opponent whenever they have their back to him waiting to receive a pass. It’s not terribly uncommon to see Sarr get as high as the opponent’s own half and try to put the squeeze on them.
Being a center back is a thankless job, particularly in today’s era. You’re constantly picked on in the media for even the slightest mistake, even if analysis on center back’s in the mainstream media can be a bit simple at times. I think in general, Sarr is able to read the game at a decent level. He’ll cover for the space that’s vacated on the left side whenever the fullbacks push up high. He’s able to track runners and know what to do in different situations. When he is defending in a two against one situation on his side against an overlapping run from the fullback and another opponent is bringing the ball up, he’ll try to make himself big so he can make it easier on himself to transition to the fullback and block incoming crosses. If he sees that an opponent is going to make a potentially dangerous run, he’ll try and shift over to them to make sure that potential threat is nullified.
Sarr’s defensive work is not perfect. While he’s got fairly solid recognition, he will have his gaffs when trying to defend in space. One question is how much Sarr’s mobility will scale up against tougher competition. It’s clear that he has good wheels, but whether he’ll be an unambiguous positive in that department will have to be monitored. I’m also interested in how Sarr is able to deal with long balls and how his mobility will hold up when he has to turn around to guess the trajectory on the ball and sprint to keep up with a runner trying to receive the pass. Something that’s a bit worrying is that though his possession adjusted tackles and interceptions are on the higher end of what you would expect from a center back, Sarr’s Tack/DP% (percentage of times a player makes tackle when in a duel vs being dribbled past) is only at 54% which is below the league average of 67%. So, while Sarr can show technique and stay disciplined, he also has a penchant for being aggressive in chasing potential tackles and interceptions.
It would be fair to say that Sarr on the defensive end is a slight positive with room to grow as he gets older. His value on the offensive end is where there’s perhaps more untapped potential. He’s displayed legitimate passing abilities, both on the ground passes and long balls. His aerial passing hasn’t been as prominent this season as its been in previous years, but he’s still been solid. What makes Sarr’s passing stand out is that he’s comfortable getting that ball into the halfspace area when there’s an opening to attempt a pass.
Given that Sarr has an intersection of solid mobility and passing, I think he could be even more aggressive with his ball carrying. Over the next few years, one area in which football will change will be that center backss carrying the ball will become even more normalized than it currently is, as the next evolution of giving more playmaking responsibilities to the backline takes hold. This isn’t to say that you’re going to see a bunch of players pushing the ball up large distances in a manner like Frenkie De Jong, but rather escaping the first line of pressure with their dribbling to destabilize the opponent and then laying it off to a open teammate. With Sarr, when he puts his mind to it, he’s effective in pushing the ball up just enough to provoke the opposition and getting the ball to a teammate.
There’s enough evidence to suggest that Malang Sarr is a good CB, and that he compares rather favorably to other CBs in his age bracket. It’s impressive on some level that he’s played as much football as he has in one of the big 5 European leagues. He has a number of skills that fit with what the modern center back archetype is currently, and there’s some low-hanging fruit to be had with him on offense. His defensive work has its strengths and weaknesses: he can track runners and shift defensive priorities at a fairly high level, but his eagerness to record tackles and interceptions can get him burned and he needs more refinement in that area. While he’ll probably be an above average athlete for the center back position wherever he goes, how far above average he turns out to be will also factor into Sarr’s true ceiling as a young talent.
There have been reports that Sarr has a release clause of around €40 million with a contract running until 2021, though it should be noted that release clauses are officially technically illegal in France. Though transfer fees on high end center backs have slowly increased over the past few years in relation to the greater spending power clubs currently have, if Nice are looking at a future Sarr transfer in the region of €40 million, that would still represent a hefty fee. Would Sarr be worth it at that price? I would tentatively say yes. I recognize that he needs to tone down his aggressiveness a bit defensively, but the untapped offensive potential he has along with how young he still is makes it enticing enough that I would take the €40 million plunge. Sarr’s upside is high enough that a club could convince themselves that spending lots of money on him is reasonable, and if he hits his higher end outcomes, you’ll have yourself a very good player in a position of need for numerous clubs in Europe.