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Will Sarr be key to Watford's revival under Nigel Pearson?

6:53 AM MYT 14/12/2019
Watford's Ismaila Sarr 2019-20
Will the Senegal wideman's fortunes change with Nigel Pearson at the helm and Liverpool on the horizon?

16 gameweeks in, and Watford are in dire straits: the Hornets are bottom of the Premier League after accruing a paltry nine points so far, they’ve won just once in the league all season having scored nine times with 30 goals conceded at the other end, and are on their third manager this term following the recent appointment of Nigel Pearson.

In addition, club record signing Ismaila Sarr has failed to fire as well as they would have hoped when they splurged on the former Stade Rennais wideman during the summer.

Sarr was acquired from the Ligue 1 side with the intention that the Hertfordshire outfit will push on in an attempt to finish in the top half or even push for a top six finish.

Such was their progress under Javi Gracia last term that Gino Pozzo believed the side could upset the applecart this year, having threatened to in the previous campaign before their late collapse led to an 11th-place finish.

However, Watford’s wretched run at the end of last season (they lost six of their last nine games) continued into the current campaign, with a further three defeats in their first four games costing Gracia his job, despite guiding the Hornets to their highest ever finish in 2018/19.

Sarr saw only 16 minutes of action in Gracia’s last games, which came in the club’s 3-1 defeat by West Ham United, his penultimate game at the helm.

While it seemed like the wideman was being eased in to life in the English game, it felt odd to use him so sparingly given they had spent so much on the talented attacker.

Despite the Spaniard’s unease at the club’s reluctance to improve the squad, dismissing him seemed harsh and rushed given how he’d bonded with the squad and led them to a high finish in the previous campaign.

What followed was even more surprising, as the Pozzo family reappointed Quique Sanchez Flores, who departed under a cloud in 2016 after falling out with the club’s hierarchy.

Admittedly, Sanchez Flores’ first game saw an apparent improvement as they absolutely unloaded an assault on Arsenal at Vicarage Road (a game in which the home side had 31 attempts) and deserved more than the eventual 2-2 draw.

Sarr played for 36 minutes against the Gunners, and it seemed like the Senegal international was due to be thrust into the thick of the action in coming weeks, but misfortune with injuries ensued.

The winger was got more minutes over the next few gameweeks, but was struck by injury after a 13-minute cameo against Sheffield United in early October, and missed the next four games until a return off the bench in a 3-0 defeat by Burnley in November.

Unfortunately, a run of one win, four draws and five defeats saw Sanchez Flores pay the price, and the former Valencia coach was sacked days after the Hornets lost 2-1 at Southampton – a game where Sarr netted his first goal for the club.

The club’s called upon former Leicester City manager Pearson to steer the club away from dropping down to the Championship, thus repeating his magic act with the Foxes in 2014/15.

Watford’s 13th head coach of this decade famously guided the Foxes to safety with seven wins in their final 10 games, after overseeing 11 defeats in their first 13, which placed them bottom at Christmas.

The Englishman’s first game in charge takes him to irrepressible leaders Liverpool in what has been a one-sided fixture over the years.

In the last 15 games at Anfield in all competitions, the Reds have won 13, while there’s been a draw and one defeat that came way back in 1999.

The Merseyside giants have averaged 3.33 goals against the Hornets on home turf in the Premier League, their highest against any side in top flight history.

Nonetheless, Pearson ought to be buoyed by Sarr’s recent form which has seen him show a bit of his quality in recent weeks, and his teammates are starting to notice, not least Ben Foster, who praised the youngster recently.

"Ismaila has been a bit unlucky with injuries. The last two games he started, I thought he did really well. If you just look at his engine the way he works, that's the sort of player we need," Foster told BBC Sport.

"I think we still have got a lot more to come from him but I think the signs of the last two games have been very promising. His goal the other night, he took it really well and hopefully there's many more to come.”

Also, the recent return of captain Troy Deeney is to the 56-year-old’s advantage, given the old-fashioned forward’s tendency to influence games for the Hornets.

They may be bottom for goals and points, but expected goals of 18.46 and expected points of 19.30 shows Deeney, Sarr and their teammates are underperforming both metrics by nearly nine goals and 10 points respectively, which should put them in 14th place, not bottom, where they currently stand.

A result at Anfield may be a long shot, but Pearson will still have 21 games to save Watford’s season.

Four years ago, the Englishman pulled off a late miracle at Leicester in the final two months of the campaign to save them from the drop, and he has double that time in Hertfordshire to repeat the trick. However, he’ll need Sarr, the club’s record signing, to help him pull the FA Cup finalists out of trouble.