Digital Football Journalist
Ismaila Sarr: Can Watford winger be the difference in Premier League survival race?
Ismaila Sarr's goals have already won six points under Nigel Pearson - while Watford struggle without him
Last Updated: 04/03/20 12:29pm
Ismaila Sarr was the architect as Watford stunned Liverpool on Saturday night. And he can prove the difference in a tight race for survival at the bottom of the Prermier League.
Watford have improved markedly under Nigel Pearson since he was appointed in mid-December, but no one has profited more from the ex-Leicester boss' arrival than Sarr, who had previously started only four league games since a big-money move from Rennes last summer.
Since then, he has proven one of the division's most influential players - including seven goals or assists in his last seven games - and can play a huge part as Watford strive to escape the clutches of relegation to the Championship come the end of the season.
He returned to the starting line-up with a bang on Saturday night after more than a month out with injury, proving a dagger in the heart of Liverpool's 44-game unbeaten league run with two goals and an assist in a 3-0 win which stunned the entire division.
"It's a breath of fresh air having Ismaila back," a triumphant Ben Foster told Sky Sports after full-time. "He's a crazy good talent, he's so calm in front of goal and he's got electric pace as well. We needed him today."
If Watford are to ensure their five-season stint in the Premier League extends to a sixth, they will badly need him in the last 10 games of the season as well.
Before Pearson's arrival, the club was facing a six-point gap to safety and looked doomed to relegation, but two and a half months on, they now sit 17th.
Sarr's goals alone have contributed six points to their survival hopes, while the Hornets have collected 17 points in the eight games he has started. He terrorised Matt Targett in a 3-0 win over Aston Villa on December 28, and did likewise against Tottenham's Japhet Tanganga on January 18 - before injury curtailed another dangerous afternoon from the flying winger.
From the four games he went on to miss, Watford managed only an unconvincing point at Brighton, were beaten by relegation rivals Aston Villa and threw away a two-goal lead to lose to Everton.
Watford with and without Sarr under Pearson
More generally, it would be fair to question whether their upturn in form under Pearson has been more as a result of the team's improvement rather than the young Senegal international, and their collective performances have certainly gone through the roof. However, his contribution has been integral in their rise from the ashes.
Although drawing from a small sample size, Watford have been far less effective in the four games he has not started - managing an average of five shots a game, as opposed to 8.75 with him in the line-up. They create significantly fewer chances, too.
Even compared to Watford's other attacking options, only Gerard Deulofeu - himself now ruled out for the rest of the season with an ACL injury - has completed more dribbles, while no one has contributed more assists since Pearson took charge.
Of players who have completed 500 minutes in the 12 matchdays since Pearson arrived, Sarr also ranks 10th across the entire Premier League in the Sky Sports Power Rankings, and showed exactly what the Hornets had been missing in Saturday's win over Liverpool.
The £40m man, who smashed Watford's record signing in the summer, showed the quality he brings as he twice took Liverpool's defence apart after half-time on Saturday night. First he raced through to Troy Deeney's hopeful through ball before beating Alisson with a perfect chip. "He's cool as ice there, against one of the best goalkeepers in the world," Jamie Redknapp told Sky Sports.
Sarr turned provider with another bit of quick thinking 12 minutes later, latching onto Trent Alexander-Arnold's backpass and standing up Alisson before setting up Deeney for a smart finish to seal victory.
"When you've got Sarr, whose raw pace is very difficult to stop, any defender doesn't want to be facing their own goal," Deeney told Sky Sports after his man-of-the-match contribution on Saturday night.
That burst of pace has made a major difference. Watford have relied on Argentine Roberto Pereyra to fill the Sarr-sized gap during his injury absence, but without that electric speed, his replacement has played in a more withdrawn role and created only two chances in four games - with his younger colleague offering Watford greater option to play in behind and spring on the counter attack, as he did so effectively against Liverpool.
The likes of Aston Villa, West Ham and now even Brighton and Newcastle will be cursing their luck that Watford's form has picked up so rapidly as Nigel Pearson works his second great escape after his Leicester side's heroics in 2015.
"Sarr is a star," Redknapp added after the Liverpool victory. "You can see it, he's got unbelievable pace, he causes defenders all sorts of problems."
But with only goal difference still keeping them out of the bottom three with 10 games left, those sort of problems might be exactly what helps keep Watford's heads above water for another year.