For any promoted side in any league, you need that little bit of a spark. You can be a stout defence from the league below or even a high-powered goal-scoring machine but if there isn’t that little bit of ingenuity from somewhere within your team, that will count for nothing in the big leagues.
That man for Metz this season has been 19-year-old Ismaila Sarr. The Senegalese winger is yet another from the Generation Foot academy, following in the same footsteps of former Les Grenats players Diafra Sahko and Sadio Mané.
Signing for a five-year deal last summer, Sarr was thrust into first-team action on the opening weekend of the season against Lille. The youngster made an immediate impact, troubling the away side’s back line before winning a penalty that helped launch Metz to a come from behind victory.
His appearances after that moment were sporadic, he would get a few games in a row before seeing some time on the bench to make an impact later in games. That meant he never really gained a head of steam in the first half of the season but at the same time, his performances were as erratic as his playing time.
Sarr had made enough of an impact to be called up to the Senegalese African Cup of Nations squad, but managed only two brief appearances during the nation’s unsuccessful campaign. However, even his club manager Philippe Hinschberger noticed a difference in the teenager upon his return.
He told BeIN Sports last month: “Ismaïla is really on form. I don’t know if it’s because of the Nations Cup, but he’s been superb since he came back. He’s been sharp in training, he’s got a great touch and when he gets to stretch his legs it’s hard to catch him.”
That perfectly sums up the second half of Sarr’s season, where he has begun to spread his wings. Four goals and an assist in 12 games since his return from international duty have helped Metz clamber away from danger and guarantee another season in Ligue 1.
When you watch Sarr play, the first thing that grabs you is his willingness to run at the opposition. His first thought when receiving the ball is what space can he gallop into, which tends to be in-behind the defenders and testing them again both his close-ball control and speed.
That approach comes with its own inherent risk, which sees him sometimes easily dispossessed or matched easily by quicker defenders. On the flip side of that coin, it has also helped Metz relieve any pressure placed on them by their opponents and in the cases where it has been successful, it has led to some incredible moments.
His goal against Saint-Étienne begin the prime evidence for this. He starts by facing up Kévin Malcuit, who backs away so he cuts inside to beat the closing midfielder before opening up his body to curl a wonderful strike in the top corner from 30 yards out.
That pace and dribbling ability came to the fore again in his strike against Nancy that sealed survival, picking up the ball initially well in his own half. He accelerates into the space the away defenders give him, one diving in for a challenge but in vain, before calmly slotting the ball beyond the goalkeeper.
It’s the flickers of life in moments like that which gives viewers butterflies. While he struggles to string moments like that in every game, there are flashes every time he is on the field that he could do something to inspire his team on further.
Sarr also makes great decisions in the final third, regularly putting in the right kind of crosses or through balls for his teammates to latch on to. Had he been in a more competitive side this season or one with greater incentives to attack, he would have almost certainly had more than the one assist he’s notched up this season.
Another positive that will help him in the future too is that he’s quietly impressive in the air. While not necessarily the attribute you look for in a winger, with more modern wide men asked to play narrower, his ability to head the ball will stand him in good stead once he makes the step up to the next level.
This is all with the caveat of saying that he’s not quite ready for the next level just yet. Too often he can be anonymous in games, as shown in the earlier half of the season, and that simply can’t happen further up the footballing pyramid.
What we do see is the foundations of what could be an exciting footballer. Putting it in the context that he turned 19 back at the end of February, he has still got plenty of time to continue his progress exactly where he is.
However, even the best laid plans can go to waste but while it’s unlikely that there will be overseas interest just yet, domestic clubs will certainly take a look at Sarr in the summer.
An incremental step up to one of the bigger sides in France may seem attractive and could be the right move soon but if Metz could at least keep him until January, it would be a huge bonus to them unless they receive an offer they can’t refuse.
Much like the two Premier League footballers that came before him, Sarr needs to take a moment and really excel somewhere consistently before moving on. If he continues at his current trajectory, then there’s an exciting player ready for someone to unravel and add a little extra spark to their play too.