“Before I went to Juventus, I made a final promise to the board at Barcelona. I said, “You’re going to miss me.”
Dani Alves’ words haunt Barcelona to this day. The revolutionary Brazilian right-back left for Turin in search of new pastures in 2016, with the Spanish side looking to move towards a younger player. Barcelona’s right-back spot has always been unsteady since. Signings like Aleix Vidal and Nelson Semedo proved to be substandard, and while local boy Sergi Roberto has been the go-to starter for the spot over the past few seasons, he does leave the Blaugranes wanting. Therefore, the search for someone who can potentially lace Alves’s boots and claim the right flank as his own continues. The latest hope to end this desperate search is American-Dutch teenage sensation, Sergiño Dest.
Various teams – clubs as well as countries – were competing for Dest’s representation. First, the US Men’s National Team and the Netherlands National Team – led by current Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman – battled it out for the then 18-year-old, with the young starlet choosing to represent the star-spangled flag of USA. Over the last week, European giants Bayern Munich provided stiff competition for the American’s signature, Barcelona managed to come out on top – Dest has signed a contract running till 2025.
Born and raised in the Netherlands, the youngster is the latest to come from the de Toekomst wonder-kid vending machine. The 19-year-old has had a meteoric rise towards the top over the past year. He was a winger for Ajax’s U-19 team in 2018, and upon impressing there, he was promoted to Jong Ajax within a mere 3 months. At Jong Ajax, he learned the trades of his new role at right-back, and in December 2018 he signed his first professional contract with Ajax.
And after a series of consistent performances for the youth side, Dest finally got a chance for his breakthrough in the summer of 2019, with starting right-back Noussair Mazraoui on the sidelines with a foot injury. Starts in crucial Champions League games against Chelsea, Valencia, and Lille speak volumes of the quality he possesses, and the trust Erik ten Haag has in him.
Photo via Imago
While Ajax didn’t make it through to the knockout stage this season, Dest showed clear signs of his high ceiling, especially against Lille where he had an important role to play in a solid 2-0 away win.
Over the 19/20 season, Dest played 22 games for the Dutch club and checked all the boxes for becoming a potentially great modern fullback. He has a searing pace and an incredible technical ability which makes it challenging for opposition fullbacks to guess his next move. He is really proficient when it comes to beating defenders and knocking the ball past them into space to cross.
For context, Dest attempted nearly 4.6 dribbles per 90 with a completion rate of around 55%, which is very respectable for a fullback. The apple from Ajax does not fall far from the tree, and that is evident in his passing. He attempted 47.16 passes per 90 with a completion rate of 86.25% and 0.53 key passes per 90. Moreover, he has a great cross in him, and attempted 0.7 crosses into the box per 90. His flair, wing play and eye for a pass make him a complete package as an attacking fullback. It also allowed him to either stay wide and receive the ball on the byline when Ziyech tucked in towards the goal from the right-wing, or to come inside towards the centre when Ziyech moved outwards. This also helped the Moroccan international freely display his ability and positioning.
It is clear from his playing style that Sergino Dest would bring forth a new creative avenue along the right flank for Barcelona, but where he does lack currently is his defensive prowess. He is often caught out of position, leaving wide spaces behind him which can be exploited. He only completed 8.88 successful defensive actions per 90 last season, and while he often does well 1v1 against wingers and has the pace to go toe-to-toe with the quickest, he is often unable to make correct the correct decision, leaving him flat-footed and consequently putting the team in danger.
His short and compact build also means he is not someone who will win physical battles often. While he does win challenges up the pitch and is dribbled past seldomly, it is when he has to defend in traditional areas that he repeatedly makes errors.
Having said, that, his signing could be the lifeline Barcelona need on the right flank, but the youngster is still inexperienced, and truth be told, La Liga is a massive step up from Eredivisie. He is still a raw product and needs the right guidance. Under the correct tutelage, Barcelona could have the perfect attacking fullback they are searching for- the flair, the technical ability and the determination are all there. Sergiño Dest’s rapid rise is not just a testament to his quality but also towards his willingness to learn and adapt quickly – and Cules will hope the same continues at the Catalan club: he does have large shoes to fill after all.
The countless storylines that have surrounded a cold season for Barcelona
Guest Writer: Ruairidh Barlow
Ronald Koeman is not doing a bad job. In fact, Barcelona are level on points with Real Madrid, sitting above them on goal difference. Not only would Barcelona fans have accepted that at the start of the campaign, but they would also have welcomed it. Probably with surprise, raised eyebrows and a grin.
Without an elite striker, with a Lionel Messi who does not want to be there, this season was supposed to be a disaster. Or a transition year, both fit. Messi had so long covered up the cracks; when the building collapsed entirely, he looked as lost as the others. The captain had given up any hope of winning with Barcelona.
And there’s an institutional crisis, the club is closer to bankruptcy than it has been since the Spanish Civil War, and there’s no president to negotiate it. Bearing all that in mind, it’s hard to criticise what is happening on the pitch. Begging the question, why is it so hard to warm up to this Ronald Koeman side?
There have been reasons for optimism at Camp Nou too. Despite some alarming gaps earlier in the season, Barcelona appear to have finally found a midfield three capable of surviving on its own – without an Arturo Vidal-shaped crutch. Either a cause or a consequence of Frenkie de Jong’s spectacular form in 2021. The Dutchman has been converted from wistful potential energy to a marauding hero in the centre of the park. The midfield belongs to him and Pedri.
Always a good gauge of the functionality of Barcelona, Busquets looks far more assured from the frail, slow problem he was six months ago. Neither of which would be possible without the mystical presence of Pedri, an authentic wonderkid. There too, Koeman must be lauded. Not only has he trusted the Spaniard, but he’s also afforded youth importance within his project. A regular demand of the fans and the club’s reputation, that like many other aspects which nourish a club, had been ignored for the last decade.
Beyond the soap opera that Koeman walked into – which has seen so many disasters it feels as if we must be close to the finale – he’s been hamstrung by extra obstacles.
Not least injuries. Messi aside, Ansu Fati is Barcelona’s best forward and inarguably the face of the club when and if Leo departs. His absence stretches across most of the season. Long under-appreciated, a pillar of that collapsed building was Gerard Piqué. He’s been missing most of the campaign too. Even Messi isn’t Messi. Earlier in the season, it appeared as if his astronomical finishing had already left the club.
The ultimate reclamation project, Ousmane Dembélé, who had neither the body or the brain to play for the Blaugrana according to many, is playing. And shining, no less. He now makes better decisions, taking responsibility not just for himself but on occasion has even done so for the whole team. Barely conceivable just six months previously.
Although Koeman did desire Luis Suárez’s departure, he certainly did not call him thinking Martin Braithwaite would be the only striker he had to call on. Other ‘superclubs’ contend with bad business, but none have dealt their manager as poor a hand as Barcelona have Koeman.
Again, on paper, there is a coherent argument that he’s doing a good job. Lingering beyond the results, the individual improvements and the nonsense he’s dealing with, there remains a doubt, though. A large portion of the media and the Culers remain unconvinced. Some exhibiting Koeman-like stubbornness about the issue. There’s a lack of feeling for this Barcelona team.
Undoubtedly reputation has tinted the conversation. While his history likely got him the job, equally, Koeman’s record as a manager is not synonymous with the success that Barcelona chase. Scoring the winning goal in the club’s first-ever European Cup has endeared him to supporters forever – which had genuine tangible value when Bartomeu was desperately grasping for the reigns of the club in August.
Naturally, that feat holds less of a place in the hearts of younger generations. Those same generations, who have only been aware of Koeman in managerial form, will also be conscious of the fact that he hasn’t won a major trophy since the Copa del Rey in 2008. He was chased out of Valencia shortly after. Certainly, there were many predisposed to scepticism.
Which often colours a performance as dysfunctional rather than developmental. But if we are to focus solely on the football itself, it’s been a season of many dawns, especially against the likes of Granada, Real Valladolid, and even Juventus (the first-time round). The pleasant moments have been promising enough to infuse hope amongst fans. Like his track record, though, the team is invariably inconsistent.
What is most curious is that those three performances mentioned were all achieved using different formations. The earliest iterations of Koeman’s Barcelona were emblematic of their manager’s personality – chiefly due to his inflexibility. Until December, the 4-2-3-1 was imposed regardless of the players available or the opponents. In itself, not a problem, yet the exploitation of soft spots was visible for too long without correction.
Even when the alterations did finally arrive, they still lack clarity. Whatever the idea is, it often comes out blurry, either in its conception or the minds of the players. Variety in attack is desirable. Too often, this variety is down to whichever individual playing at any one time, rather than an intentional change. With minor exceptions, mostly the long-awaited llegada of de Jong, there seems to be little consensus on how the team should attack from game-to-game.
Martin Braithwaite out wide seems to be a poor use of the limited skills he can offer. Like de Jong, Antoine Griezmann looks more confident, more involved and most importantly, happier. Yet, the finer details of his role are still shrouded in mystery. In his heart of hearts, he will never be the number nine Koeman could not sign. Lionel Messi’s role as freestyle point guard works best if he is surrounded by organisation, allowing the Argentine to be the chaos.
These challenges are not without difficulties. Apportioning responsibility from afar is a hard task. According to Koeman, though, none of it lies with him. Following each setback, the Dutchman has publicly demanded better from his players. Football-wise he may not be wrong. Numerous individual errors and impotence in front of goal do not belong amongst elite footballers.
Nevertheless, the modern age manager must be an amateur psychologist in every instant. A trait that unites all the managers at other top clubs is their ability to stand by their players. Koeman’s refusal to endure any of the criticism is the sort of thing players – or anyone in their workplace – remember.
That’s just the players he appreciates too. One can only imagine how the likes of Miralem Pjanić, Carles Aleñá (before he left), and Riqui Puig feel about their manager. Between the trio, they account for 8 league starts this season. A figure which increases in oddity given only Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets are the only fit players in their positions.
In particular, the furore surrounding Puig reached superlative levels at one point. Some fatigued observers have allowed this to cloud the actual issue. Ignoring the tiresome Twitter hyperbole, there is a genuine conversation to be had.
Puig may not deserve a starting place every week, but his syrup-like touches, dressing the minutes he has been given, warrant more action. They certainly have merited more than the 181 he has enjoyed in La Liga. Koeman has been hounded about it many times: to this day, he is yet to provide a rational explanation.
Neither is he flush for options on the bench. Over-complicating tactics is now a common malady in football. Still, Koeman’s counter-reaction of adding defenders when winning or attackers when losing is extreme. Both in the theory and the consequences – on just five of the 17 occasions Barcelona have fallen behind have they won.
It’s also a question of ambition. “What would Johan Cruyff do?” Presidential candidate Joan Laporta often asks himself. Add an extra midfielder in all likelihood. The great Barcelona sides would have been confident of retaining the ball, defending with the ball – being masters of their destiny. Adding a defender cedes territory to the other team and demands that they do the one thing they are poorest at: defend without the ball.
And then there’s PSG. January brought a new year, and it looked like a new Barcelona, the cogs finally clicking into place. That game put the brakes on all momentum, just when it appeared the paralysis had finally been overcome. But it was never just PSG. It was Sevilla, Atlético Madrid, and Real Madrid. All of these points of improvement, all the progress, seems to slip away when faced with a genuine challenge.
Even in the Spanish Super Cup final against Athletic Club, when Barcelona were not as poor as some suggested, the Basque side were capable of unlocking their demons again. It’s not unreasonable to expect more; no team in LaLiga has taken fewer points from matches against the top four this season than Barcelona (granted they can’t play themselves). Now, the inability to win big games in Spain has become a narrative too. Well, until Sevilla were brutally sliced open by Koeman’s men at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
Barcelona are undergoing far too complex a season for a proper appraisal. The usual cauldron of noise and egos are difficult to decipher in ‘normal’ times, let alone in this most surreal era. If the Blaugrana were playing smooth, jazz-like football with the same points tally, if they were on a visible path, Koeman would be doing an excellent job.
But Koeman’s greatest problem is that the mistakes are obvious. The rationality behind his decision-making remains a little too obscure. When changes do manifest themselves, they are tardy on a political scale. Despite Koeman navigating some of the biggest waves, basic flaws leave enough room for doubt to survive.
One of his greatest attributes is his iron will. Nevermore so than now is a strong personality a necessity for a Barcelona manager. Everything is being done in extremis though. In order to fix some of the obvious errors and answer the key questions, he needs to show the balance of a great leader. Perhaps then he will be fully trusted to steer Barcelona through next season’s storm.