Playing for FC Barcelona is no walk in the park. Whether an established superstar or promising youngster, expectations are sky-high and there is little room for error. This is especially the case when you are playing a position that has been underwhelming for multiple seasons.
This is the situation Sergiño Dest found himself in last summer. After choosing to join Barça over Bayern Munich, he was propped up as the heir to Dani Alves’ throne. On the other hand, some were cautious with their expectations, given his lack of breakthrough success at Ajax.
After scoring a brace against Real Sociedad last night and being in overall brilliant form over the last few matches, Dest is living up to lofty expectations while proving all doubters wrong. As such, how can Barcelona continue to get the best out of him?
An Empty Throne
Dest came in with a thankless task on his hands. Consequently, many of his performances were (unjustly) criticized. Cúles have come to expect a certain level of output from the right-back spot ever since Dani Alves left in 2016. For years, Alves was the best player in that position, and he remains one of the greatest of all time too, and the hole he left behind was unfulfilled. The Brazilian could dribble past anyone on his day, his deliveries and entries into the final box were world-class, and he was a powerhouse on the defensive end.
Sergi Roberto was an admirable replacement, but he lacked the flair and natural ability of his predecessor. Furthermore, Nelson Semedo’s stint was, unfortunately, subpar. Despite having only one full season of top-tier football under his belt, Dest was expected to immediately perform and at least provide competition for the right-back position.
It goes without saying that a player needs time on the pitch in order to improve, and that’s often hard to find at a club like Barcelona. Nevertheless, due to injuries and rotation, Dest has had plenty of playing time this season. In fact, he has the tenth most minutes this season, and he has appeared in 32 matches.
First-choice RB Sergi Roberto’s season has been marred by injuries, which has given Dest crucial experience. As such, his development has undoubtedly benefited. It has been precious time for him to develop chemistry with his teammates and adapt tactically to playing in La Liga and with Barça.
Up and Down Campaign
Dest’s Barcelona campaign has had its highs and its lows, but he is consistently trending in the right direction. He started the season at left-back due to Jordi Alba’s injury, showing his versatility. When Sergi Roberto went down with a long-term injury in November, Dest took over his right-back spot.
His performances were often solid but equally under-appreciated. He performed extremely well in his first El Clásico, effectively shutting down Madrid winger Vinicius Jr., but the team’s 3-1 loss overshadowed everything. That became a recurring theme for the young American, where his performances were overshadowed by the team’s defensive inefficiencies. The Catalans’ error-prone defence also exacerbated his positioning, which admittedly leaves some to be desired.
As a player, he has the ability to defend one-on-ones using his pace and smart tackles to dispose off opponents. However, he has been caught out of position on various occasions. Offensively, he has gifts that Roberto and Semedo lacked: a natural flair in the offensive third with a penchant for taking opponents on or shooting on goal.
He played well throughout late 2020, but injuries slowed him down in January, and it looked like fatigue from a congested season was getting the best of him. Things then reached an all-time low with the first match against Paris Saint-Germain, but in his defence, he did not play nearly as bad as people thought. In fact, he kept Kylian Mbappe in-check at times, but it was ultimately a lack of a team defensive structure that really hampered him. That match was a blow to his name, but he vowed to continue fighting and prove his worth.
A change in formation
Things took a turn in late February when Ronald Koeman decided to deploy a 3-5-2 (or 3-4-3) formation. This pushed Jordi Alba and Dest from their full back roles higher up the pitch, effectively turning them into wingbacks or wide midfielders.
Dest has absolutely thrived in this role, marauding down the right-hand side with pace, energy, and flair. He has a boatload of skill moves in his back pocket and is not afraid to use his freestyling abilities in the final third — a growing trend in European football. He offers a sense of unpredictability that the team has desperately needs.
Since Koeman has changed formations, he has hit the crossbar thrice – including once against PSG in the 1-1 draw – and topped off his brilliant run of form with a brace against Real Sociedad. In fact, in his six games as a wing-back, he has averaged over 1 shot per game. In his previous eleven games as both a right and left-back, he only mustered one shot in eleven games.
Other than boosting his offensive contributions, the change in formation has also helped Dest defensively. The 20-year old can now operate in more threatening positions up the pitch without sacrificing too much space. Any lapses in concentration or misplaced passes are no longer as detrimental because the right centre-back provides defensive cover. Furthermore, he does not have to exert as much energy moving up and down the flanks. Barcelona will surely continue using this formation, and that will help him fine-tune his raw offensive talent while also alleviating defensive pressure.
How can Barcelona get the best out of him?
First, in order to facilitate his development as a player, Dest has to continue playing plenty of minutes. He has almost locked down the right-back/right wing-back role, but healthy competition and rotation with Roberto (or Emerson if he’s brought in) would only help the team. Fortunately, Dest has already played in plenty of big games this season.
Another key is to continue utilizing him as a wing-back. The team has performed extremely well in the 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 formations, so that hopefully means Dest will have more time in that role. As such, he will get even more comfortable on the offensive end, expanding on his raw dribbling and improving on his final deliveries into the box. It will also let him thrive without exerting too much energy, thus he can press with higher intensity. Dest’s can continue making strides on the defensive end because there won’t be as much pressure on him.
In all, he is looking more and more comfortable on the pitch with each match, and he is expressing himself to the fullest.
Overall, Dest is in a perfect situation for a developing full-back. His path to being a cemented first-team starter is clear as day, and he is in a set-up that allows him to expand his strengths while improving his weaknesses. His future is as a full-back, but playing as a wing-back/winger will help him develop even quicker.
After years of searching for Dani Alves’ heir, or at least the heir to the right-back role, Barça are extremely fortunate to have Dest. There are dangers with getting carried away with immediate expectations, but he has all the pieces necessary to excel.
Using Machine Learning to predict Barcelona’s 2021/22 league season
Johan Cruyff famously said, “I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.” It is indisputable that money is not the only deciding factor behind a football club’s success. Time and time again, we have seen that football is chaotic and absurd. Anything can happen.
That being said, it is evident that statistically, the clubs with more money are usually the more successful ones. While one cannot predict the unpredictability that is engraved within football, an outcome that is statistically probable can be predicted. This article will explore the relationship between the points a club accumulates in a league season and the total value of the club’s squad. Then, Python will be used to build a linear regression model in order to predict the number of points Barcelona will obtain in the 21/22 season based on the club’s hypothetical squad.
Let us begin with visualizing the relationship between the total league points obtained by a club and the club’s total squad value. Since the amount of money spent on transfers has increased tremendously over the course of the last decade, in this article, only seasons 2014/15 – 2019/20 will be considered. Upon plotting the total points against the total squad value, it is evident that there is a positive correlation between the two. Granted, the correlation is not extremely strong, but it exists nonetheless.
A line of regression has been generated. The line’s gradient is approximately 0.05138986, and its y-intercept is approximately 44.5470726. There is only one dependant variable in question, club value/total value of squad, and so our line of regression can be modelled by the equation:
P = (0.05138986 )V + 44.5470726 where P is the points and V is the total squad value.
club_values = np.array(df['Values']).reshape(89,1) club_points = np.array(df['Point']).reshape(89,1) from sklearn.linear_model import LinearRegression linear_model = LinearRegression() linear_model.fit(club_values,club_points)
In order to predict the points accumulated based on Barcelona’s squad value next season, the squad value won’t directly be inputted into our equation above. The coefficient and the y-intercept have been rounded up after a certain number of decimal places, and so, to preserve the precision of the prediction, Python’s LinearRegression predict method will be utilized.
Now comes another challenging part of coming up with Barcelona’s hypothetical squad next season. Based on reports, it can be assumed that Samuel Umtiti, Miralem Pjanic, Martin Braithwaite and Phillipe Coutinho will be some of the notable players to leave. To compensate for the outgoing players, it can be assumed that Barcelona will sign Eric Garcia, David Alaba, Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay. Here is a table that contains all the players in Barcelona’s hypothetical 21/22 squad and their corresponding market values:
|PLAYER NAME||MARKET VALUE (MILLION POUNDS)|
|MARC ANDRE TER STEGEN||79.34|
|FRENKIE DE JONG||84.63|
|KONRAD DE LA FUENTE||2.64|
The club’s total value comes up to be £786.60 million. It is important to note that a player’s value is volatile. Transfermarkt updates player values every few months, and so it is extremely probable that this squad’s market value will be drastically different next season.
It is also important to understand that Transfermarkt’s market values are not official and so they are not always an accurate representation of a player’s true market value. Moreover, a player’s value is not always an accurate representation of their quality. Age is a key factor in determining market value, and so while a young player might have a high market value indicating that they are a bright prospect for the future, they might not necessarily be an excellent player at the time when the value is assigned.
Now that all of this has been established, the only thing left is making the prediction.
The machine learning model predicts that Barcelona will obtain 85 points in the 21/22 La Liga season. In the 19/20 season, Real Madrid won the league with 87 points, and in the 18/19 season, Barcelona won the league with 87 points as well. The difference between the points accumulated by the last two winning La Liga squads and the predicted points that Barcelona’s 21/22 squad will obtain is a mere 2 points. This shows that it is possible for Barcelona to win the league next season.
Since the correlation between the two variables, as observed from the data from the last 6 seasons, is not even close to being extremely strong, Barcelona’s 21/22 league points tally may be drastically different from what was predicted by the machine learning model. However, at the end of the day, the model can only work with the data it is exposed to.
Erling Haaland can change the course of Barcelona’s season. It would take forever to make predictions based on Barcelona’s hypothetical squads that include all of the club’s potential transfer targets, however, due to Haaland’s influence, an exception can be made for him. Laporta’s interest in signing Haaland has been widely reported.
However, he will cost a fortune this summer, and with Barcelona’s debt situation, it is unlikely that the Catalan club will pursue him in the upcoming transfer window. That being said like mentioned previously in the article, football is chaotic, and anything can happen.
Assuming that Barcelona does end up signing Haaland in the summer, Antoine Griezmann will most definitely have to leave (due to wages and the money that can be generated from his sale). Haaland’s current value is £99 million, and so Barcelona’s total squad value for next season, after being corrected for Griezmann’s exit and Haaland’s arrival is £831.60 million.
Haaland’s addition can put 21/22 Barcelona on level with the previous two Spanish champions in terms of total points won. The difference in points between a squad containing Haaland and one not containing him is only two. However, an argument about whether signing Haaland is worth it, is not in the scope of this article.
“Transition seasons do not exist at Barcelona.”Joan Laporta | Presidential campaign
A club of Barcelona’s stature will always compete for titles. The machine learning model shows that Barcelona is in contention for the 2021/22 La Liga title. Ronald Koeman has done a splendid job at the Blaugrana club this season, and there is no logical reason for him to not do an even better job next season after getting fresh players in the summer.
While football at its core is unpredictable, statistically, it would not hurt to trust Barcelona to win the 2021/22 La Liga title.