Pape Matar Sarr is moving up Spurs’ midfield hierarchy

As FA Cup ties go, this one will not live long in the memory. Entertainment minimal, drama non-existent, good football largely absent, shots on target (two in total for both teams) risible.

If Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 Portsmouth does make any imprint on your brain it will be for one of these three things:

1. Pompey’s 9,000 away fans causing a din for 90 minutes.

2. Harry Kane moving to within a whisker of Jimmy Greaves’ all-time Spurs goalscoring record (this was another match that made you ponder where they’d be without him… probably heading to Fratton Park for a replay and also 10 points and six places lower in the Premier League without his goals).

3. Pape Matar Sarr finally making his full debut.

Expectations around Sarr, 20, are quietly high, particularly given his reputation as one of the most talented midfielders of his age in European football, a player who was being closely monitored by big clubs across the continent.

It was 18 months ago that Spurs paid Metz around £15million ($18.1m) to buy Sarr but, because they loaned him straight back to Metz for the 2021-22 season and he’s spent the past half a season as fifth choice in Antonio Conte’s midfield pecking order, he had to wait until Saturday to make his full debut after a couple of recent fleeting substitute appearances in which he impressed.

Senegal‘s exit at the last-16 stage to England in the World Cup meant Sarr had a chance to impress Conte in the weeks leading up to Christmas on the training ground, and he, as well as Bryan Gildid enough to be handed opportunities in the past couple of weeks.

Gil took his chance against Crystal Palace in midweek and followed that up with a good display against Portsmouth. So how did Sarr do?

During all of this the standard of opposition and the game state both have to be taken into account. League One side Portsmouth had just 28 per cent of the ball and rarely ventured into the Spurs third of the field (not to diminish their performance, they were organised, put together some nice passages of play and massively restricted the chances Spurs could create).

Portsmouth sitting deep allowed Sarr, who played in the pivot with Oliver Skipp pushing beyond him, to dictate play. He touched the ball 115 times, the most on the field and more than double that of Skipp (54), with a 90 per cent pass accuracy, which you’d expect. Where he excelled was in winning the ball back with five tackles (highest on the field) and three interceptions (the most of any Spurs player).

Apart from a couple of wayward first-half passes, he sprayed the ball around with confidence and usually precision, also playing 13 long balls (the most of any outfield player), of which nine found their target.

Conte’s assistant Cristian Stellini said before the game that Sarr had been working on his body position and that was evident in the way he shielded the ball from Portsmouth’s midfielders and then opened himself up to switch play to either flank.

This is his pass map, showing a variety of angles and positions (the yellow lines are misplaced passes), mostly out to the flanks.

And this is his touch map, again showing how much ground he covered, albeit no touches in the box.

Sarr has played a number of different midfield positions during his short career and if he’s now to be a more regular fixture in the senior group rather than just an unused substitute, Conte will need to work out how best to use him.

In 2020-21 at Metz, he mostly played as a defensive midfielder, then last season he moved up to central midfield (50 percent of minutes) and also played 36 percent of his minutes as an attacking midfielder behind the front line.

He can play box-to-box, he can break up attacks, he can score goals, he can even take free kicks, as we saw for Senegal against England.

As this graphic from his 2020-21 campaign — the one that convinced Spurs to buy him — shows, his shot volume is incredibly high, as is his carry and dribble volume, as he has an impressive physicality and good technique when dribbling.

We didn’t see much dribbling or shooting against Portsmouth but that wasn’t Sarr’s role on the day. If Yves Bissouma had played alongside him, as he was supposed to before injuring himself in the warm-up, Sarr may have been given license to push further forward.

“He’s a very young player and it’s the first time he came to England,” Stellini said of Sarr. “One year experience in Ligue 1. About the skill, he can do everything. Great player with many possibilities and play in many different positions.

“You have to wait with young players. With Pape, Antonio decided this moment that he’s ready to play. We work a lot on the body position and he showed the desire to improve and this is very important because you can work with them.

“With Pape, it was very easy, but we have a hierarchy and he has to respect that.”

Yes, there is a hierarchy, but you wonder if Sarr has crept up a place above Skipp with not just his performance here but how he used the ball smartly against Palace a few days earlier.

He looks composed and mature for his age. And, just like Gil, he may now become a viable option for Conte, not just in FA Cup games.

(Top photo: Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)


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