Malang Sarr: Meet the Nice young wonderkid watched by Arsenal and Chelsea

Generation Next is our regular column on Just Football profiling the best and most exciting young talents you need to know about in world football. Check the archives here if you don’t believe us.

After our most recent scouting report of AC Milan starlet Manuel Locatelli, let’s head over to the south of France to look at the teenager making waves in the French Riviera…

The performances of OGC Nice in Ligue 1 this season have taken many by surprise, particularly after experiencing an eventful summer, which saw a number of departures.

Coach Claude Puel swapped the French Riviera for the south coast of England, whilst key players Hatem Ben Arfa, Valere Germain and Nampalys Mendy started the 2016/17 season at new clubs. In came Lucien Favre on the touchline, along with high profile signings Mario Balotelli, Dante and Younes Belhanda.

The results have been spectacular. The club are top of Ligue 1 at Christmas and in what appears to be a three-horse race for the league title, along with Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco, leading them to be dubbed the “French Leicester City”.

Also spectacular have been the performances of Malang Sarr, a 17-year-old French defensive wonderkid who has cemented himself as a key component in Nice’s title ambitions. His progress has been so rapid that Nice have quickly tied down Sarr to a first professional contract to put off numerous suitors.

Profile

Name: Malang Sarr
Date of Birth: January 23rd 1999
Age: 17
Position: Centre Back (left sided)
Nationality: French

Who is Malang Sarr?

“Sarr’s rise has been so rapid he does not have a squad number against his profile on the Nice website.”

This is a question that even the most ardent OGC Nice fan could not have answered less than 6 months ago. Sarr was only given his debut on the opening day of this season, after Lucien Favre spotted his talent playing for the youth side in pre-season.

For the local academy product, his debut could not have been better. He not only kept a clean sheet at the heart of the defence but also scored the only goal in a 1-0 win against Rennes. His goal celebration was an emotional moment and endeared Sarr to the supporters even more, the defender dedicating his goal to the victims of a terror attack in the city a month earlier:

“It was a tribute to the victims [of the terrorist attack on Bastille Day]. This was very important for us and I dedicate my goal to them.”

A left footed defender, Sarr has slotted seamlessly into the left sided position in Favre’s favoured 3-5-2 system (though he does vary the system with a 4-3-3). Aided by the experienced Dante, Sarr has shown maturity beyond his tender years, taking to professional football with a great amount of ease.

A youth international for France, Sarr’s consistency has led Favre to feature the youngster in every Ligue 1 match so far this season. The solid defensive foundation he provides has allowed the likes of Vincent Koziello, Belhanda and Balotelli to shine.

Playing style and strengths

A standout feature of Malang Sarr’s defensive play is his ability to read a game. This is borne out by the fact that Sarr leads the charts for interceptions amongst the Nice defenders, and is one of the highest in league.

This skill has resulted in Sarr conceding very fouls – just 8 in his first 14 league games, picking up two yellow cards all season. Such discipline is very rare for a 17-year-old defender, yet Sarr has a great level of maturity and composure, which enables him to play in a three or four-man defence.

Technically, Sarr has great potential on the ball, showing a willingness to bring the ball forward out from the back into the left channel. When closed down Sarr remains calm and supplies key forward passes into midfield.

Still with time to grow and develop physically, Sarr already possesses great attributes. His aerial strength is superb for one so young, whilst his mobility means that he can defend one against one situations with ease in the channels and also cover for the experienced Dante.

Finally, perhaps Sarr’s greatest asset is his personality, with the defender remaining grounded despite his remarkable acceleration into the first team. Recently, Sarr signed a first professional contract, but was quick to state that he will not change his approach:

“From a contract point of view, my standing has changed, but in the everyday, things are staying the same. I play and train with the first team; off the pitch, I continue my little habits: I still live with my mum and remain close to the same friends.”

The future for Malang Sarr

Despite signing a first professional deal and having a close attachment to his local club, Malang Sarr’s performances will inevitably gather interest. Before signing his first contract there was intense speculation that Arsenal, Chelsea and Inter Milan had registered an interest in the player. Those clubs and others were regularly in attendance for Nice matches.

Reports in France suggest that Sarr has a £50 million release clause in his contract, which would make Malang Sarr one of the most expensive defenders in football history. Although things look promising for Nice at the moment, it seems likely that one day Sarr is destined for a big money move.

However, for now, the 17-year-old is at the perfect place to learn and develop.

SEE ALSO: The #JF70 2017: The top 10 best France Ligue 1 young talents to watch in 2016/17

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