Malang Sarr: Balotelli's Chelsea-tracked Nice team-mate who turned down Arsenal

Malang Sarr, Chelsea, Arsenal

It's not just Super Mario propelling Lucien Favre's men to the top of Ligue 1, you know. Francis Kelly profiles a teenage centre-back who looks destined for the very top

The 60-second story

FACT FILE

  • Date of Birth: January 23, 1999
  • Place of Birth: Nice, France
  • Height: 5ft 10in
  • Position: Defender
  • Club: Nice (13 apps, 1 goals)
  • International: France U19 (2 caps), France U17 (11 caps)

As far as first impressions go, Malang Sarr couldn’t have made a more memorable one than on his debut for Nice. An hour into the opening fixture of 2016/17, the 17-year-old rose highest at the back post to nod home Jean-Michael Seri’s set-piece and secure victory for his side. With it, he became the second-youngest debutant goalscorer in Ligue 1 history.

A homegrown talent scoring the winner on his maiden outing would usually be enough to automatically make the player in question a crowd favourite, but this goal meant so much more to the people of Nice. Coming a month after the Bastille Day attack on the city, with the team wearing a commemorative kit and tributes made before kick-off, Sarr further endeared himself to those on the terraces by dedicating his first goal to the victims of the terrorist attack.

Born and raised in Nice, Sarr joined the club's academy at the age of five. New manager Lucien Favre saw clips of him playing for the under-19 side this summer and instantly called him into the senior squad’s pre-season preparations.

Antonio Conte, Arsene Wenger

Chelsea and Arsenal were both interested in signing Sarr before he agreed professional terms with Nice

Sarr hasn’t looked back since, becoming a central part of a team fighting for the Ligue 1 title. Following an array of impressive performances, Nice moved quickly to tie him down to his first professional contract, beating off interest from ArsenalChelsea and a host of other European clubs.

Why you need to know him?

At a time of major change at the Allianz Riviera, Sarr's ability to immediately settle into the rigours of professional life has been extraordinary

Making your way in the game is particularly tough for teenage defenders, whose errors often prove far more costly than those made by attacking team-mates. Yet Sarr has proven to be so consistent for Nice that he's their only outfield player to have featured in all 17 matches so far this season.

At a time of major change at the Allianz Riviera – including the arrival of Favre and a clutch of new players including Mario Balotelli, following the departure of three first-teamers in the summer – Sarr's ability to immediately settle into professional life has been extraordinary. He's able to comfortably switch between playing in a four- or three-man defence, and it's no surprise that he's gained so much attention from fans and pundits alike.

Few knew of the youngster ahead of this campaign, and an underwhelming showing at the U17 Euros was seemingly proof that he wasn't ready to make the leap to Ligue 1. That situation has changed rapidly, however, with Sarr continuing to grow into an imposing and reliable defender.

Malang Sarr, Mario Balotelli

Sarr and Balotelli have helped Nice to the top of the table in France

Strengths

Strong in body and mind, strikers have found it almost impossible to get past Sarr, both on the ground and in the air

For someone so young it's to Sarr’s credit that he doesn’t look out of place alongside his experienced centre-back partner and captain, Dante. Much of that comes from his ability to accurately read the game, as well as his tactical understanding and an improving positional sense. It's best demonstrated by him leading Nice’s interceptions chart by snuffing out potential threats and dealing with them before the opposition can make anything of the situation.

Strong in body and mind, strikers have found it almost impossible to get past Sarr both on the ground and in the air. He shows a level of maturity beyond his years and versatility which means he can play anywhere across the backline and down the left-hand side. As such, the teenager enjoys roaming forward when the chance arises.

Sarr is also keen to turn provider, and often looks for quick long passes in an attempt to initiate counter-attacks. It's his heading that's proven to be most useful, though, with both of his assists coming by way of knockdowns.

Weaknesses

Although he's been a revelation since making his debut in August, it's important to remember that Sarr's still only 17 games into his professional career

Although he's been a revelation since making his debut in August, it's important to remember that Sarr is still only 17 games into his professional career, which makes it tricky to judge his full potential. Europa League matches have been testing, but at 17 years old he still has ample time to learn from those experiences.

Sarr has worked hard to improve his positioning, but there's still work to be done. His decision-making can also be lax; again, this defect can be attributed to his age, and his continued presence in the first team will surely iron it out.

Malang Sarr

There's still room for improvement in Sarr's positioning

They said…

He has potential for progression but there's physical, technical and mental work to be done too

- Lucien Favre

Nice manager Favre is understandably protective of his youthful charges, having formed one of the youngest teams in Ligue 1. The fact he tried to down play Sarr netting on his debut therefore came as no surprise, even if it did include a word of warning about the difficult challenges that lie ahead.

"This evening he scored a goal – it's the icing on the cake," Favre said. "He has potential for progression but there's physical, technical and mental work to be done too. Beyond that, there are those who make it and those who don't. You never know what can happen so please don't talk too much about him."

Lucien Favre

Favre has been impressed with Sarr but is wary of building him up too soon

Did you know?

Despite signing his first professional contract, Sarr is keen to keep his feet firmly on the ground. He hasn't changed the routines that have propelled him into the first team, having rejected the chance to leave home and purchase his own place, instead preferring to continue living with his mum. 

What happens next…

Arsenal had hoped to swoop in and entice Sarr to London before he agreed his first senior deal, but the Nice native turned down their advances and opted to stay with his boyhood club. Upon agreeing the deal, he said: "It was my dream to sign a professional contract here; the dream came true and it has a very special flavour."

Quite what it tastes of we aren't sure, but stories in the French press did reveal a €50m release clause. If a club matches that fee in the next couple of years – and Chelsea are reportedly still interested – it would see Sarr become the most expensive teenager in world football, outdoing compatriot Anthony Martial’s transfer to Manchester United.

For now Sarr has given no indication of wanting to leave Nice, which is understandable given how solid his partnership with Dante has become. The youngster is not only enjoying a stellar breakout season, the club he has grown up at is battling for its first Ligue 1 title in over half a century.

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