We speak to our young defender Malang Sarr for the first time, and find out more about the beginning of pre-season with Thomas Tuchel, what his Porto experience was like, which Chelsea defenders he admired growing up, and why the Blues are the perfect match for him…
‘After the two games, I thought Chelsea were going to win it, for sure.’
There is no hesitancy in Malang Sarr’s voice. The defender, who signed on a free transfer last summer and then headed to Porto on loan, watched on from the bench as his two teams went toe to toe in the Champions League quarter-final.
‘It is very difficult to play against Porto,’ he says, speaking with understandable authority.
‘Teams struggled to match the defensive intensity and stay at the same level. Chelsea were struggling a little, but not as much as the other teams did. They were really solid and they did the job. From then I was sure they would do it.’
The 22-year-old was spot on. Chelsea did win the Champions League. On paper, the two legs against Porto looked the least difficult of all our knockout fixtures, but that would be to ignore their exploits earlier in the competition, not least the dramatic victory over Juventus in the round of 16.
Sarr came on for the final half-hour of normal time in the second leg, and as an enthralling contest in Turin headed to an additional 30 minutes, he and his nine team-mates still on the pitch managed to repel Ronaldo and co before grabbing a second, decisive away goal.
‘That game was unbelievable, with a lot of ups and downs,’ recalls Sarr, a big smile etched across his face.
‘I came in after the red card. I knew it would be tough, for sure, but playing 10 against 11, it was even harder. When I saw that happen, the team acted differently. We stepped up and played like we were 11 on the pitch. Everyone was giving everything, and to catch that feeling was really great.
‘To finish the game like this, the last-minute goal, against Juventus…wow. That is the game you want to play, 10 against 11, with all the difficulties and things not going your way, that was really the game. We fought against adversity.’
Sarr made 19 appearances for Porto during his seven months at the Dragao. While he admits he would have liked more playing time, the experience served him well. He says he learned a lot about himself mentally during those periods he wasn’t involved, and also because of the restrictions he faced as a result of the global pandemic. He had his elder brother with him for company, and a former Porto legend and now a Chelsea loan player technical coach, Paulo Ferreira, back at Cobham analysing his performances and offering guidance.
‘He was really kind with me, he was talking to me almost every day, trying to get news, asking for feedback, checking everything was going well,’ says Sarr.
‘I felt really good at Porto and the main reason was because of him. He was taking care of me. He gave me some little tricks with the language as well!’
Almost exactly a third of Sarr’s minutes last season came in the Champions League, with his six appearances in the competition yielding four clean sheets, an opening-game loss at beaten finalists Man City, and those Juventus heroics.
‘To play in the Champions League was a goal of mine since I was a kid,’ he acknowledges.
‘It was great to have that opportunity, see the level and where I’m at. I was happy to do pretty well, we were really solid defensively and that’s the main thing for me as a defender.’
Sarr, who came through the Nice academy, describes himself as a centre-back who ‘likes to play, and likes to fight’. He is equally happy stepping out of defence in possession as he is getting stuck in and showing his aggressive side. He can also play at left-back.
Growing up in southern France, it is a player who made his name a little further down that coastline that he singles out when asked if he had any Chelsea heroes growing up.
‘I was a striker until I was 13 or 14 so Didier Drogba was one, and then the guys at the back, John Terry and Ashley Cole, and then Frank Lampard, all these legends. My father loved Marcel Desailly, too, and would tell me all about him.’
Sarr’s contract at Nice expired last June, three months after the Ligue 1 season had been cancelled because of the pandemic. He takes up the story.
‘I was training on my own, training at home and just waiting. I had been almost six months without playing, and when my agent told me about this opportunity to come here to Chelsea, I was surprised and happy.
‘It was a great opportunity for me. He talked to me about going on loan for the first year and for me it was a good idea. I hadn’t played for a long time and I needed to get the rhythm and to play and have a good experience also, step up after Nice, and come back stronger and ready to go.’
That is where the Frenchman, who has represented his country at Under-21 level, finds himself now. After a summer off, in which he was able to travel home and to Senegal to see extended family and friends for the first time since Covid, he has been getting down to work at Cobham under the watchful eye of Thomas Tuchel.
‘It’s a pleasure to be here, starting to work, we are working very hard and very well so I’m happy. I have enjoyed being here.
‘I have spoken a little bit with the manager, he knows I speak French so we have been talking. I have a good feeling here; everybody is very good with me. I can feel everybody is ambitious here.
‘They want to work and they really want us to give the best every day, and that’s a good thing because that’s how I see things. I really want to work hard every day and try to improve in every aspect.
‘I hope to join the team and help the team to the top,’ adds Sarr.
‘They finished the season as Kings of Europe. I’m here to help and to let the team stay at the highest level, trying to bring all the good energy and my work to the team. I know the club is ambitious and I am ambitious as well, so it’s a perfect match.’
Determination, confidence and European pedigree. Sarr was right about Chelsea winning the Champions League, and you wouldn’t bet against him achieving his own ambitions at Stamford Bridge in the years ahead.