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Ismaila Sarr: Will Gerrard, Aston Villa regret passing on ex-Liverpool target?

19:07 GMT+3 24/08/2022
Watford Ismaila Sarr of Senegal.
The Watford man’s move to Villa Park is off despite reports over the weekend that a switch was imminent

The dust is still settling on Ismaila Sarr’s botched move to Aston Villa, days after a transfer seemed imminent for the Senegal and Watford star.

Multiple reports intimated that Steven Gerrard was intent on bringing the previously rumoured Liverpool target to the club but a switch is not expected to materialise.

In truth, a switch to the West Midlands club appeared strange on the face of it from the get-go.

Admittedly, a Premier League move appeals to the Senegal international whose ability and strengths mean he ought to play at the top level every week, yet there was no obvious place for him in Gerrard’s tactical approach.

The former Liverpool captain has largely utilised a 4-3-2-1 formation at Aston Villa, continuing with the approach he often leaned towards at Rangers, whilst also operating with a 4-4-2 diamond from time to time.

The aforementioned approaches bring the best out of Philippe Coutinho, a playmaker who thrives in the hole or in the inside-left channel, whom Gerrard has largely looked to build around, evidenced by last season’s temporary deal for the then-Barcelona man which has now been made permanent.

Not only has Coutinho’s acquisition shown the direction of Gerrard’s Villa, but the personnel available to the Englishman indicate a change in approach is unlikely.

Thus, it makes their previous Sarr chase somewhat odd before a transfer seemingly broke down on Tuesday.

The Watford forward’s profile over the years shows he functions at his best operating in wide positions, predominantly on the right flank where he has mostly featured for the Hornets and operates with the Senegal side.

While the winger looks to move into the box from wide positions, he is largely tasked with stretching play out wide and given carte blanche to take on his marker.

Of course, there have been occasions in which the 24-year-old has been utilised centrally, either in a front two or as a lone frontman, but those have been few and far between for the ex-Stade Rennes man.

Perhaps, the logic behind chasing Sarr was to add a different dimension to Villa’s attack with the view of acquiring a winger capable of stretching the pitch and adding width to a narrow forward line.

Admittedly, that profile of player already exists at the club, with Jamaica international Leon Bailey often operating with that instruction under Gerrard.

A close look at the Jamaican’s pressure maps in both starts against Bournemouth and Crystal Palace showed the 25-year-old’s predisposition towards staying close to the touchline whereas Coutinho and Emiliano Buendia looked to operate in the half-spaces versus the Cherries and Patrick Vieira’s team respectively.

Maybe that was the rationale driving Villa’s interest in Sarr, whose presence in the squad could have even seen an outright 4-3-3 with the Senegalese and Bailey operating as natural wingers on both flanks.

It now appears that a transfer will not materialise, and you wonder where that leaves the Africa Cup of Nations winner.

Palace were said to be interested in signing the Watford man before Gerrard’s men stole a march on the 24-year-old and that interest may be revived. A move to Selhurst Park will not only appeal to Sarr, but the approach under Vieira suits him to a T.

The 1998 World Cup winner utilises a 4-3-3, favouring direct wingers on both flanks — with Wilfried Zaha and Michael Olise — while favouring a bit of defensive organisation at times, introducing Jordan Ayew for games against the Premier League’s so-called top six sides.

Having said that, it remains to be seen if the Eagles revive that reported interest in Sarr whose potential acquisition could have repercussions on Olise and teenage prospect Malcolm Ebiowei, who has impressed in cameos against Arsenal on the opening weekend and in Tuesday’s League Cup win over Oxford United.

There may also be a reluctance from Watford to sanction a sale of their prized asset days to this summer’s transfer deadline, especially after already losing Emmanuel Dennis to Nottingham Forest this month.

Sarr may feel he has overstayed at Vicarage Road but a move away may no longer be straightforward.

A switch can never be completely ruled out, though, especially given the unpredictability the final week of the window throws up.