The capture of the Zambian international striker from Belgian side Oostende on a four-year deal is an indication that Steven Gerrard regards the 24-year-old as a significant long-term investment for the Ibrox club.
It remains to be seen exactly where Sakala will fit into Gerrard’s team and the manager’s preferred 4-3-3 system. That may depend on whether Rangers sell any of their current attacking players this summer. Wherever he is deployed, Sakala will have to modify his game.
“In a 4-3-3, maybe he will fit in on the left side of the front three,” says Junior Verbeeke, a football writer who covers Oostende for leading Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad.
“Oostende are playing 3-5-2 and Sakala has been playing off a tall target man striker (6ft 4in Austrian front man Marko Kvasina).
“Oostende play a lot of fast counter-attacking football. So I wonder how Sakala will fit in at a team like Rangers who have a lot of ball possession and have to create a lot of chances around the box.”
Sakala’s career has been a steep learning curve ever since he left his homeland to join Spartak Moscow four years ago.
His raw talent was first showcased at the 2017 FIFA under-20 World Cup Finals in South Korea. Sakala scored four goals in the tournament, including strikes against Portugal, Germany and Italy, as an exciting Zambian side reached the quarter-finals.
But he was unable to make the first team breakthrough at Spartak, playing for their B team in the second tier of Russian football, before joining Oostende in the summer of 2018. By his own admission, he was still very much a work in progress.
“I came here like a chicken without a head,” Sakala said in a Belgian newspaper interview in February this year. “In Zambia, I played football on intuition. I have now learned so much.”
Verbeeke agrees, having witnessed Sakala’s development into a key player for Oostende.
“He made a lot of progress since joining Oostende,” said Verbeeke. “He is a fast striker but when he arrived, he wasn’t really a top flight player.
“He didn’t make an immediate impact and tactically he wasn’t good. He was just running everywhere without thinking. He scored six goals in his first season, maybe four or five of them in the air.
A risk worth taking
“But now he is physically stronger and tactically much stronger. He has really improved a lot on the tactical side.
“He has scored 13 goals this season which isn’t a huge number for the Belgian League but is still really good.
“He had a strong period over the new year period but his last goal was in February and he has struggled a little with injuries since then. Maybe the transfer speculation also had an effect on him.
“As a free agent, he is worth the risk for a team like Rangers. There’s no doubt about that.
“In short combinations and short actions, Sakala will have to adapt a lot. He is more of a running striker.
“But he is capable of going one-on-one with defenders and beating them, often cutting onto his left foot and getting shots away across the goalkeeper. He made and scored a lot of goals like that.
“But in the last few weeks, he missed a lot of close range headers, so that’s something he has to work on.
“He is definitely not the finished product but for a player of 24, he can really improve and succeed under Steven Gerrard and his coaches.
“I don’t think the Scottish Premiership is as strong as the Belgian League, so while Sakala is going to a much bigger club he can develop and score a lot of goals.”
Thriving under Blessin
In the curtailed 2019-20 season, Sakala scored nine goals in 30 games for Oostende. He has flourished in the current campaign under highly-rated head coach Alexander Blessin who took charge last summer. The former RB Leipzig youth coach, currently being linked with the managerial vacancy at Sheffield United, has transformed one of Belgian’s more unfashionable outfits.
“Blessin has made a big impact on the team,” says Verbeeke. “They were relegation candidates but they finished fifth in the regular season and are now in the play-offs for European football next season.
“That’s been a huge surprise in Belgium and the coach has had a huge impact on the progress of Sakala.
“He has shown a lot of trust in him and talks to him a lot. Tactically, Blessin is a really strong coach and Sakala has learned a lot from him.”
Mr Nice Guy
Capped 13 times for Zambia at full international level so far, Sakala will have international duty to attend to this summer with World Cup qualifying matches against Mauritania and Tunisia in June before he joins his new Rangers team-mates in Glasgow.
While he may face a challenge in getting to grips with the demands placed upon him on the pitch, Sakala seems certain to have no issues in fitting into the tightly-knit squad which Gerrard has established at Rangers over the past three seasons.
“He is a really easy-going guy, well loved by everyone,” says Verbeeke. “He is always laughing and smiling around the training ground, a really sweet guy. I’m sure he will settle in well at Rangers and become really popular with everyone there.”