Watford are Leeds United’s opponents this weekend, as the Whites look to win their first game of the season at their seventh attempt.
Marcelo Bielsa‘s men have taken the lead in their last two games but seen points dropped in each, as Newcastle United came back to claim a point at St James’ Park whilst West Ham United broke hearts at Elland Road with a 90th-minute winner.
On both those occasions, it was Leeds‘ opponent’s star forwards who made the difference as Allan Saint-Maximin scored for Newcastle before Michail Antonio struck the crucial blow for West Ham on Saturday. The man that Leeds will need to stop this weekend is Ismaila Sarr.
Leeds Live has the lowdown on the forward and what Leeds should expect in facing him.
What position does he play?
Watford have lined up in a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1 in every game so far in the Premier League season. The 23-year old has started on the right wing for each of these.
What kind of form is he in?
Very good. Sarr has four goals already this season and has scored in every game which the Hornets have taken points from so far. He scored in the opening day win against Aston Villa, before picking up a brace in the win at Norwich City and then headed in the equaliser against Newcastle last weekend.
What makes him dangerous?
Sarr has an athletic but slim build, which enables him to have an excellent blend of strength, speed and agility. He is one of the most prolific dribblers in the Premier League, completing 2.67 per 90 according to fbref.com. This is enough to rank him in the 88th percentile for wingers and attacking midfielders for this metric. His electric acceleration and ability to change direction at pace, coupled with his upper body strength which means he can’t be easily bullied off the ball make him a menace for fullbacks.
Last season Sarr scored 13 goals and made four assists in the Championship as the division’s fullbacks struggled to keep up with him. He was a target for many of Watford’s balls behind opposition defences and would relish opportunities to go 1v1 with opponents in the penalty area, where he could dribble at them in the knowledge that they’d be scared to challenge him in fear of giving away a penalty.
However, the Senegalese international isn’t one-dimensional and limited to his pace and dribbling. He scored a variety of types of goals last season such as displaying excellent movement to get free to finish in the penalty area, arriving at the back post to finish crosses, as well as strikes from outside the box and poacher’s finishes from rebounds. This season he is Watford’s leading shot-taker with 16, so he remains their biggest goal threat.
Should Leeds manage to limit him as a goalscoring threat, they will still need to watch for his ability to power towards the byline and deliver cutbacks, which is his primary source of chance creation.
Why does this make him so dangerous against Leeds?
Sarr is the type of player who is Leeds’ kryptonite at the moment. He could exploit Leeds’ high defensive line by staying high up the pitch and Watford playing the ball over the top for him to chase or he could take a deeper starting position and carry the ball through Leeds. As the last two games emphasised, when Leeds turn possession over around the halfway line, if somebody dribbles with the ball, it can cause carnage for Leeds’ man-marking system as players are forced to leave their man and engage the ball-carrier or other runners, leaving players free. This is exactly what happened in the winning goal last Saturday.
Junior Firpo allowed Declan Rice to get the run on him in the middle of the pitch, and all of the defenders were picking up different players to those they had been previously marking. Liam Cooper blocked a pathway to goal for Rice, whilst Jarrod Bowen dragged Charlie Cresswell out of position, leaving Antonio free to finish. This all came about because the Whites were scrambling to react to Rice running with the ball.
Either tactic of using Sarr high up or to carry the ball in transition could cause Leeds a lot of problems.
How can Leeds stop him?
There are two main ways they can stop Sarr. Firstly, Junior Firpo will need to have a better game than he did on Saturday.
The fullback did well in possession but on two occasions he got caught out positionally and both ended in West Ham goals. He will need to track Sarr tightly and not lose concentration.
One good thing to note is that Firpo is better in 1v1 situations against athletic dribblers than he is against skilful dribblers such as Mo Salah. He showed this when he played for Barcelona as he got the better of Kylian Mbappe.
The other way which Leeds can limit Sarr is by keeping hold of the ball far better than they have done lately. Leeds have been quite direct in their attacking, which has resulted in a number of turnovers and subsequently a lot of counter-attacks.
The winning goal against West Ham came as Leeds threw a hopeful cross into the box in the last minute, rather than passing the ball quickly and looking to move the opposition defenders around. This was easily headed away and the break-away started there.
If they can dominate the ball in this game, keep it in Watford’s half as much as possible and be patient, they will create chances to score. In doing so, they will also starve the Hornets’ best attacking outlet of any opportunity to wreak havoc at the other end.