Reading finally have their man. Naby Sarr has joined on a free transfer from Huddersfield Town, having left the Terriers at the end of last season upon the expiration of his contract. He’s agreed a four-year deal with the Royals.
This move certainly feels like it’s been the most frustratingly drawn-out transfer in recent memory. After Reading’s interest had been revealed in early July, Paul Ince told the media all the way back on July 23 - a week before the start of the season at Blackpool - that he was expecting Sarr to join in the following days.
It was then reported on July 25 that a deal was done before Sarr was pictured in a Reading kit on July 27. We were left waiting for official confirmation though, and we kept waiting... and waiting... and waiting some more.
Eventually it emerged in STAR’s Fans Forum that Reading had in fact finalised the deal. The last hold-up though was EFL approval which wouldn’t come until the wage bill was cut to make room for Sarr’s pay. That was finally done with George Puscas’ loan exit to Genoa.
Head of football operations Mark Bowen said:
“Naby is a centre-back who simply loves to defend. Strong in the air, comfortable with the ball at his feet, a leader out on the pitch and in the prime of his career, I am looking forward to seeing what Naby can achieve as a Royal. I am also very grateful that such a highly sought-after defender this summer has patiently remained committed to joining the project we are trying to put together at Reading.”
While Paul Ince added:
“Naby is a physical, powerful, experienced centre-half who is proven at this level and is definitely up for the challenge of the Championship. He will be a fine example for the younger centre-halves we have coming through the ranks at Reading to follow and I am very pleased he has committed the next four years of his career to what we are aiming to achieve at this club.”
Sarr’s had a varied career so far, taking in French, Portuguese and English football. He began at Olympique Lyon where he made a few appearances in the Europa League before heading over to Sporting Lisbon in 2014. Having failed to become a regular there, he entered English football in 2015 by joining then-Championship side Charlton Athletic.
That’s where he’s picked up the bulk of his game time so far, playing more than 100 times for the Addicks in the second and third tiers, including earning promotion from League One in 2019.
Despite Charlton’s relegation the following year, Sarr himself stayed in the Championship by heading to Huddersfield Town on a free transfer. He had been a regular in 2020/21, turning out more than 40 times for the Terriers, but ultimately found game time more difficult to come by in the second half of the season just gone. Town’s move to a back four, which included the strong pairing of Tom Lees and Matty Pearson, didn’t help Sarr’s chances.
Still, then-manager Carlos Corberan was delighted by the attitude shown by Sarr at the time:
“We know that he is a player who was out of the squad many times over the last few games, but he’s a player who is an example about being a professional player... he’s someone who in any moment doesn’t give up.
“Every time he’s on the training pitch he’s training at his highest level, and not only this but he’s training at his highest level and helping a lot the young centre-backs from the B team that are training with us – that can be Loick [Ayina] or can be Etienne [Camara]. When you are working with someone who always has the determination to help, you can only be pleased.”
So how might he fit in at Reading?
Sarr is now the fifth centre back among the Royals’ core options. Besides the currently established main trio of Tom Holmes, Sam Hutchinson and Tom McIntyre, Scott Dann will be back in the mix when he returns from injury in the next few weeks. Otherwise, Liam Moore wasn’t given a squad number so has been frozen out entirely, while Reading can also count on youngsters Louie Holzman, Nelson Abbey, John Clarke and others.
Five main options (plus others) for a team playing a back three seems about right. Without Sarr, Reading’s options would suddenly look very thin after one injury. Paul Ince now has some room for competition, cover and rotation.
Sarr covers two roles in the back three: the middle centre back and the left-sided one. The former is probably the better option, with Terriers writer Steven Chicken telling Berkshire Live:
“He’s a massive left-footed centre-back who has played in either in a back four or a back three, but there’s little question in my mind that he’s better in a three than a four - preferably as the middle centre-back, where he is less likely to get exposed for pace.”
That naturally makes you think Sarr would be good competition for Hutchinson, who played as the middle centre back during pre-season and against Middlesbrough. In turn, Hutchinson could potentially then slot into midfield if required or perhaps onto the right side of the three, although his lack of pace would be more exposed there.
In addition, Sarr would be an alternative for McIntyre on the left side of the three. Sarr’s lack of pace means he’d be a different proposition to McIntyre - a mobile defender who can bring plenty to Reading’s forward play by bursting up into midfield and even the final third. It’s still an option certainly, but the Royals would possibly have to play a deeper line and think about how Sarr works in conjunction with whoever’s playing left-wing-back.