Senegal recorded an excellent 2-1 win over a more fancied Poland side to enhance their chances of progressing from what must be the hardest group at the World Cup to call, even before two results that threw it wide open. While several Senegal players impressed, not least the terrific Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye, wide forward M’Baye Niang of Torino, and Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly, the Rennes prospect Ismaila Sarr made a big impact as a somewhat surprise starter.
While the usual, questionable clichés have been trotted out about the ‘pace and power’ of African teams, what was most impressive about Senegal was their pressing game and the way they maximised the attacking opportunities that came their way. While Poland had 61% possession they only managed 44.6% territory, as Senegal consistently found ways to frustrate them. Indeed, it was only some wayward finishing that prevented the score-line from having a more emphatic feel to it. Senegal’s 4-2-3-1 fell back into a 4-4-2, with Niang or Mane pushing up alongside Mame Biram Diouf, or a 4-1-4-1, with Diouf pressing alone and one of Gueye or Alfred N’Diaye dropping back to screen the back four.
From his right midfield position, Ismaili Sarr pressed intelligently and with vigour, ensuring that Maciej Rybus, the Polish left-back, almost always had to pass back to his goalkeeper or into a centre-back. He, in turn, came under pressure from the energetic pressing of Mame Biram Diouf or Sadio Mane in Poland’s left half-space, which meant that Senegal were able to stop Poland from building slowly from the back or advancing their full-backs too high, a real area of threat for the European side. Sarr constantly made life hard for Poland, and his five ball recoveries were the most of any attacking player on the pitch, joint with Sadio Mane and Robert Lewandowski. He was then able to carry it himself or pass sensibly back to the midfield or his full-back, as Senegal sought to retain possession against a side trying to hog the ball.
Sarr was also a crucial out ball when another Senegal player won it back, finding intelligent space between the lines so that Gueye, who was probably the man of the match, had a passing option when he did recover it. It was noticeable that Sarr would either push or stay quite aligned with the rest of Senegal’s midfield when not actively pressing, so that he was invariably in space, even if he was not then passed to.
In attack, Sarr completed two of seven ‘take-ons’, and made three crosses with none connecting, though one did ultimately find its way through the M’Baye Niang. This output shows Sarr has work to do – his positioning and work rate in the press was no doubt more impressive than what he was then able to fashion with the ball, but it’s also worth noting that he was quickly closed down when in possession, and Poland made life hard for him.
Sarr’s attacking performance was far from flawless, and he needs to improve his end product. But that understates his importance, as a young attacking player far more used to a freer attacking role on the left-hand side at Rennes than the disciplined role he took up on the right against Poland, to Senegal’s overall performance. Aliou Cisse set his side up brilliantly to win the ball back through a concerted wide press and counter where possible, aware that he was playing a team that would need to be undone by counter-punching, rather than concerted, dominant pummelling. Sarr’s efforts to this end were hugely productive and indicative of a young player who can tailor his game to the needs of his team. It is encouraging, both for Sarr himself, and for Senegal’s prospects in Russia this summer.
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