On the 27th of August reports were confirmed as Chelsea officially announced Malang Sarr would be joining Chelsea on a 5 year contract, the first of which will be spent out on loan at Portuguese side Porto. This piece will look at Sarr’s game, his career so far, and how his future may look at Chelsea.
Sarr is a 21 year old centre back who has been a regular starter for Ligue 1 side OGC Nice since the age of 17. Born in Nice, Sarr joined the OGC Nice academy at the age of 6 where he remained until June 2020 when his contract expired and he became a free agent. Sarr has been touted as one of the finest prospects ever produced by Nice and has played an enormous amount of minutes for someone his age. The Frenchman has made 102 Ligue 1 appearances since his debut in August 2016 upon which he scored a winning header against Rennes. For players under the age of 21 in Europe’s top 5 leagues, only Kai Havertz (118), Kylian Mbappe (106) and Christian Pulisic (106) have made more appearances than him, demonstrating how rare a youngster with his level of experience is. Sarr has also been a regular international in France’s youth sides from U16 to U21.
Sarr at OGC Nice. Image Credit: Evening Standard
In his time at Nice, Sarr has played as a left centre back in both a back 3, a back 4 and as a left back. Of these positions Sarr looks most comfortable in a back 3 in which he can use his mobility and proactive defensive style freely while his two fellow centre backs cover the space left behind. However he is also very comfortable in a back 4. In the 19/20 season, Sarr was used a lot as a left back, and while he is able to play this role, he isn’t a natural fit. This led some fans to accuse manager Patrick Viera of stunting his development by deploying him out of position.
Stylistically, Sarr is very much in the mould of the modern centre half, comfortable at carrying the ball and playing passes out from the back. During his 19/20 Ligue 1 campaign, Sarr averaged 60 passes and 3.5 long passes per 90 with a 90.4% passing accuracy. Sarr also completed 0.7 dribbles per 90, and while stats alone can paint an inaccurate measure of a defender’s game, the eye test also backs Sarr’s capabilities on the ball. Sarr is left footed, a valuable commodity in the modern game and something currently lacking in Chelsea’s centre back options. Sarr often starts attacks from deep by playing passes between the lines or switch balls to his opposite right flank. The 21 year old also likes to carry the ball into space, drawing in an opponent before playing the ball to a teammate in the space left behind.
Defensively Sarr isn’t quite as refined but still impressive for a player of his age. Sarr is a proactive defender and likes to leave his defensive line to put pressure on opponents as they wait to receive the ball with their back to goal. This allows him to force opponents back or intercept the ball before it is received, snuffing out attacks before they become dangerous. For a 21 year old Sarr is also very impressive at switching defensive roles based on the situation. He has no trouble tracking runners and covering space left in behind by the left back as they bomb forward.
However, Sarr’s proactive defensive style has its drawbacks. The Frenchman’s eagerness to make tackles and interceptions can sometimes result in him overcommitting to challenges and being easily beaten. Sarr can also be prone to the occasional lapse in concentration, however both this and his aforementioned rashness aren’t major issues and can be ironed out of his game with experience. Sarr also isn’t amazing aerially, standing at only 1.82m (6’0) and losing more aerial duels (16) than he won (14) in the 18/19 season.
Sarr for France u21s. Image Credit: Evening Standard
Sarr is an incredible talent who has the capability to be one of France’s best defenders in the coming years. However, potential and living up to that potential are two different things. Chelsea have recently shown they are prepared to be ruthless in the market and that combined with other young centre back talents such as Xavier Mbuyamba (see his scout report here), Fikayo Tomori and Marc Guehi means a place in Chelsea’s future sides will be far from guaranteed. Should Sarr not prove to be first team quality for Chelsea, given his talent he will surely fetch a decent price in the market if Chelsea want to sell.
Sarr’s loan to Porto is potentially a good one but not without cause for concern. At Porto he will be able to start regularly and play Champions League football. Porto drew Manchester City, Marseille and Olympicaos in the group stage and facing these sides (especially City) will provide Sarr with valuable experience at the top level. However one concern with the move may be around the position he will play. Porto recently sold LB Alex Telles leaving a vacancy at left back which Sarr may be tasked with filling despite being best as a centre half.
Sarr after completing his loan move to Porto. Image Credit: Porto Twitter
Overall this purchase is a move that has very few negatives for both Sarr and Chelsea. Chelsea can secure Sarr high profile loan moves which will help his development. Meanwhile Chlesea have secured a young player with high potential for free who at best can be a starter and at worst can be sold for profit.