Before their takeover in January, Southampton operated on a sell-to-buy transfer policy. The Sports Republic revolution has seen this tepid transfer policy overthrown, and the latest of arrivals on the South Coast is Sekou Mara - arriving from Bordeaux for a fee of around £11million.
With the French striker being relatively unknown outside of his home country’s borders and a Southampton side struggling to score goals, what can Mara bring to Southampton’s flailing frontline?
Who is Sekou Mara?
Ralph Hasenhuttl called him “a player you have to get quick,” but you’d be forgiven for not being too familiar with Mara, a 19-year-old with only eight senior starts under his belt. He began his youth career at Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, before being released and heading to Boulogne-Billancourt in 2014. Mara eventually ended up at Bordeaux in 2017, where he has impressed since graduating from the financially-frugal side’s academy in February 2021.
In the 34 games in which he played for Bordeaux, Mara scored seven goals - with six of these coming in 26 appearances last season. He remains the youngest goalscorer for Bordeaux in Ligue 1, being 18 years and 276 days old at the time of scoring.
The majority of these seven goals came from drawing errors from the opposition, a trait that will make Mara feel right at home in Southampton’s high-pressing system. It is one of Mara’s many quirks that most Saints fans don’t know about, as they will likely won’t be familiar with the Frenchman’s past work. But on closer inspection, Mara seems like the ideal fit for a Hasenhuttl centre forward.
Shooting on Sight
Perhaps the most exciting quality that Mara brings is his confidence in shooting. According to FBRef, Mara averages a total of 3.58 shots per 90 - placing him in the top 11% percentile within Europe’s top five leagues and above any Southampton player throughout the 21/22 season. In a toothless pre-season where the Saints have only scored one goal in three games, Hasenhuttl will be eager to see Mara bring some bite into the front four. A striker with the confidence to shoot will relieve Saints fans who only saw their side average 1.63 goal creating actions per 90 in the Premier League last season, the 14th worst in the competition.
Whilst Armstrong stays more central for runs in behind and opportunities inside the penalty box, Mara’s positioning can be compared to that of an inside forward, who occupies the half spaces around the halfway line instead of just exclusively in front of goal. Mara’s experience playing as a right winger in the Bordeaux academy gives him the inclination to demand the ball in the half spaces, run forward or cut inside and shoot-on-sight with his dominant right foot. This was demonstrated perfectly in his goal against Angers SCO pictured below.
Mara sits centrally, but drifts to the left as soon as the ball is played wide to the left back - spotting an opportunity and moving naturally the instant the ball is passed forward.
He offers an option to the left midfielder just outside of the penalty box, takes a couple of touches to create space for himself and places the ball into the near corner on sight. Mara plays at a faster pace than Southampton may be used to - there were many frustrating times last season where a Southampton wide player looked to cross the ball centrally but there were no options, and Mara immediately spotting the opportunity here shows exceptional gamesense for a 19 year old.
It also means he can provide depth and cover to the wide “number ten” positions that Ralph Hasenhuttl relies on - a more clinical option for a role that often lacks the cutting edge needed to win games at the highest level of English football. Mara is more suited to a centre-forward role however as his passing isn’t his strongest trait, and if rumours around the departure of Theo Walcott or Nathan Redmond are true, Southampton will likely need to bring in another wide player and will not be able to just rely on Mara to fill in there.
Relentless Pressing and Poaching
A big contributor to Southampton’s successes under Hasenhuttl has been their gegenpress system - a fast-paced, high pressing style that looked to force mistakes out of the opposition. Yet, like their campaign overall, the intensity of pressing seemed to fizzle out towards the end of the season. Southampton averaged a 42% pressing success rate in their opening 20 fixtures, a number that dropped to 31% in the last month of the season. Mara smashes the competition here. He averages 22.9 pressures per 90, placing him in the top 4% in Europe’s top 5 leagues.
The next best Southampton striker still at the club is Adam Armstrong, who averaged 15.2 pressures per game last season. Mara’s work rate is naturally high, and the desire to break out in one of football’s biggest leagues should give a hard-working player the motivation to be even more productive.
The Frenchman brings a persistent annoyance in his playstyle - a poacher always looking to latch on to loose balls. While he possesses natural finishing capabilities, his striker’s instinct at just the young age of 19 is almost remarkable. His goal against Stade Brest last season was brilliantly scrappy - involving Mara making a jog back to get himself onside before running onto the keeper’s spilled save.
This high work rate bodes well for Mara who will need to adapt to the higher intensity of the Premier League, yet his ability to draw fouls shows that he will be more than happy to compete physically with notoriously robust English centre backs. He draws an average of 2.29 fouls per 90, just sitting below Nathan Tella who drew 2.58 last season. Mara clearly isn’t afraid to get stuck in, and his bravery paired with pace in beating defenders to the ball should see him latch onto opportunities around the goalmouth much like his goal against Stade Rennes in May 2021.
He brings a penalty spot prowess almost Danny Ings-esque, and while his goal tally wasn’t too high last season, this instinct could finally make Mara the poaching replacement the Saints have sought after since the departure of Ings.
I’m a striker. I’m strong with good heading and I love scoring – it’s the most important thing for a striker. I loved to watch Drogba, Thierry Henry and [Cristiano] Ronaldo. They all played in this league, so I am happy to join this league too.
Sekou Mara, speaking on signing with Southampton FC.
Southampton may have saved Bordeaux from the brink of bankruptcy with this transfer and in doing so they’ve acquired a centre forward perfectly suited centre forward for their fast-paced system. It was a transfer that may have moved quickly, but one that was not rushed - Mara is a far cry from a panic buy, and is a player who should bring excitement and energy back into a stagnant Southampton attack force.