It looks like Ismaila Sarr’s time at Watford is about to come to an end. It was probably at least a year too late, but whatever fee the club can wrangle from Marseille or whoever, it’ll be best for all parties to get this done. Getting his wage off the books and getting something for his registration will speed up the rebuild/loan repayment process and perhaps allow us to invest in other areas of the squad, even if it’s just opening up some room in the wage budget. For him, going to a club playing in Europe next season, one that should know how to use a pacy winger with a bit of specialness, can hopefully get him back to playing his best and reach that next level many of us believed he could when he first pulled on a Watford shirt.

Out wide in space with the ball at his feet, Sarr can be devastating. He has made many Premier League and Championship left backs look silly with his dribbling, his pace, and on occasion, his finishing. Once he gets around you, all you can do is foul. Most people remember the brace against Liverpool that ended their super-long unbeaten league run, but there were many more. While fan sentiment around him soured in the last couple years because of his consistency and perceived lack of effort (the latter I don’t agree with), the high highs he had playing in yellow cannot be denied.

Sarr was an exciting player when we signed him, and I think he’s still got that in him if he’s played in the right system. But from the very beginning, he was the wrong player for us. An out and out winger like him did not fit Javi Gracia’s system, nor really any of the (many) head coaches’ that came after. He didn’t often play out of position, per se, other than when he was asked to play centrally as a lone striker, but the roles he was given and the tactics he was playing under didn’t utilize his skillset optimally.

Like the Liverpool match, his time with us was a mixed bag overall. We lost Gerard Deulofeu to a season-ending injury in that massive win, which I still think was the difference between relegation and survival for us that year. Sarr, while giving us some genuinely electrifying moments, can also be seen as an inflection point that changed the course of the club. With the margins between 17th and 18th being so fine, what would have happened if we had gotten greater value from the investment we made in him? Rather than spending that sum on a puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit, what if we had instead brought in another player (or three) that bolstered other areas we were lacking?

Oh, the Opportunity Cost

A club like Watford does not have a lot of money to spend on transfer fees. While the TV money from the Premier League was very nice, once a club establishes itself in the division, most of it will need to go to wages. After the first few seasons where the wage-to-turnover ratio is still reasonably low and there’s excess cash for transfers, the bulk of the money to bring in new players after that have to come from (additional) owner investment, profit from selling existing players, or loans, deferrals, and other means to increase the funding available to the club. Some time before Sarr was brought in, Gino invested an additional £35M into the club so we can continue upgrading the squad. Without this, there would’ve been no money for Sarr.

Look. I understand that not all transfers are going to work out. Players we buy will not always perform at the level we expect them to. Sometimes, our scouting is just going to be wrong. But the least we can do is spread out our risks and only buy players whose skillsets and positions match the style we want to play. With Andre Gray, at least the intention of buying a striker was correct, even though the player did not play at a level commensurate with his cost. With Sarr, not only did we put all our eggs in one basket, we didn’t even really like eating eggs. It was wrong-headed from the start.

Sarr the player arguably matched the scouting and merited the fee we paid given his age, especially in that first year. But it’s like buying a Ferrari for city driving – it looks cool, but we really couldn’t fully utilize its power. It wouldn’t matter if we were Man Utd, Arsenal, or a big side with more money to spend. For us, that was our one big bullet. Spending all that on him meant other areas were neglected. It’s like using all of your disposal income for a year to buy a car – even if it works as well as advertised, you’ve used up all your money and can’t do all the fun stuff you were planning to do with the car, so you end up just using it to go buy groceries. But hey, those trips are shorter now!

The opportunity cost of bringing Sarr in – tying up so much money on a player in a position/role we arguably can’t get full value from given the head coach in place – prevented us from reinforcing in other areas. That creaky defense, other attacking players that better fit Javi’s 4-2-2-2 system, a goalkeeper who is better at distribution, etc. – I suspect we could’ve gotten the extra point and goal difference needed to get us to 17th that year had we utilized that money in other ways. Even if that weren’t the case, our squad overall would’ve been stronger with other positions fortified. We might have actually stood a chance of staying up after we got promoted again.

Bah. We could talk what-could-have-been all day, but the real failure was in the process. Even if we weren’t relegated in 19/20, Sarr would’ve still been the wrong player to bring in at that time for that fee. It’s one thing to buy opportunistically regardless of position when you’re dealing with South American teenagers who aren’t expected to contribute right away (and who don’t cost £30M). But if you’re buying for the present, breaking your transfer record fee by over 50%, it’s really odd to spend that on a player who doesn’t tick all the boxes, the most important being whether he fits in with your current squad’s needs.

You can even say that for a club with our budget, spending that much on a single player is risky and inefficient even if he were the perfect fit. Making multiple smaller bets creates a higher floor in terms of expected value, defusing the risk among several players, and likely avoiding the boom-or-bust extremes of making such a large wager on a single player.

To me, the purchase of Sarr – once again, a player that I rate – has been Gino’s biggest mistake thus far in his tenure as the owner of Watford Football Club. The opportunity we squandered to more evenly and appropriately strengthen the squad while we were still doing well in the Premier League might not be one we’ll have again in a long time, given how well-funded and well-run many of the clubs outside the (financial) top six are these days. Even if Gino’s strategy works to perfection, buying young and selling high, we will at best have a puncher’s chance of going up again. And to stay up for more than a year? It’ll take a near miracle.

We had our chance to entrench ourselves in the Premier League, but we lost it. But hey, at least the car was fun to drive!

2 Responses to “On Sarr and An Opportunity Lost”

  1. Richard Read Avatar

    Well reasoned argument. Certainly we tried to put all our eggs in 1 basket with him, as good as he was at his best.

    1. Hanson Avatar

      He’s just not a player we can afford given our other needs…

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