Flashback to last season, the morning after every El Clasico mirrored one talking point: the exposition of Barcelona’s fragile right-back position by the pace and dribbling of Vinicius Jr. It is a discussion Culés have had umpteen number of times. Be it Sergi Roberto who struggled to track-back and recover on counters. Or let it be Nelson Semedo who was defensively solid yet left with question-marks after the clash. Real Madrid’s left-wing was always the constant source of worry for the Catalans.
Yet, on Saturday, things were different. The Los Blancos left-wing that often harbours a storm seemed silent as a grave. One could not see Vinicius, the so-called opposition defence terror, or Ferland Mendy as a matter of fact. Madrid seemed to be playing on only two-thirds of the field, with one wing completely shut. On the night, Vinicius lost possession a whopping 20 times, and Ferland Mendy on nine occasions. How? Presenting, Sergiño Dest.
Not only was it the occasion where he became the first player from the United States to participate in a Clasico, but it was also the first time he was starting his natural position. Yet, Dest did not look frazzled for a moment.
Since his arrival late in the window, the young protege had only played as a left-back to cover up for the injured Jordi Alba. Indeed, Alba’s injury was a blessing in disguise for Barcelona, because it provided Dest with a platform to show his capability, earning him the start against Madrid.
Ronald Koeman surprised the world with his line-up against Real Madrid. Despite many people calling for Dest to start, fans felt a sentiment that Roberto would get the nod on the merit of experience. In a bold decision, the Dutch manager decided to give the USMNT star his first start as a right-back in one of the biggest games of the year. Truly, it was a decision that Koeman will not regret, irrespective of the result.
Throughout the 90′, the teenager seemed to ooze with confidence and maturity. His body movements never provided Vinicius with any opening to dribble. The positioning was spot on, and he was ready to challenge for the ball the instant it was lost displaying his bizarre recovery pace.
He constantly provided Leo Messi, Pedri and Gerard Pique with a passing outlet, but maintained his composure throughout. Moreover, his searing pace never provided Los Blancos with an opportunity to counter on their left-wing.
When pressurised by multiple men, the teenager always seemed to find a way to wriggle out and still find the right pass. Despite the gravity of the situation, Cules felt a sense of security watching him dominate the position that is so often the weak link in the team. There was a veil of calmness on his face irrespective of everything happening around him. As the word goes, legends say Vinicius is still looking for a way out of Dest’s pocket.
Some pictures need no captions. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)
Defensive liability? No, sir.
When the Ajax starlet made his much-awaited move to Barcelona, it was well known that he was a product that still needed refinement. While he already had a reputation of being impressive in attack, there were doubts raised about his defensive capability.
However, what bigger stage than the El Clasico to prove everybody wrong. He may not be complete, but he is already a country mile ahead of any other options at our disposal.
Against the galacticos, Koeman seems to have instructed Dest to play a deeper position. During corners, he was always seen as the last man that was anchoring the team to plug potential counters. That in itself, speaks of the confidence the coach has on his defensive skills. Dest ended the game with two successful tackles, one interception, and one crucial block. Moreover, what adds to the impressive performance are his offensive stats despite playing a deep position.
Dest completed the most number of successful dribbles of any Barcelona player (six) in the Clasico, while playing one key pass and winning eight of his ten attempted ground duels.
The visuals of him toying with Ferland Mendy and Vinicius in the final third continue to play in the minds of Culés on loop, as it summed up one of the best performances we have witnessed at right-back since the departure of Dani Alves. 43 out of his 46 passes (93.5%) were accurate against an opposition that pressed relentlessly, but it was also the highest among all the outfield Barcelona players.
Albeit the final result was not good for the Catalans, the one massive positive take-away from the game is the performance of Sergiño Dest. The American stamped his authority over the right-back position with all his might. Looking to midweek, he may well get the start against Juventus in the Champions League. At 19-years of age, he already has what it takes to displace Sergi Roberto as a regular starter. Nonetheless, the more playing he gets, the trajectory can only go higher. Barcelona have a diamond in their ranks, to what extent can they polish it?
A history of crumbling under pressure: The Jordi Alba conundrum in a big game
Claiming Jordi Alba to be one of La Liga’s – if not Europe’s – most improved players from last season would not be a far fetch. While on his best days, his quality has always been evident, and his raiding runs on the left flank tend to give the Blaugranas a huge edge, the Spanish international’s output in the final third has lately begun to revolve around sensible plays, with visible improvements in Alba’s decision making; most notably refraining from relying on the formularized ‘Messi cut-back.’
The marauding speedster has become a crucial cog in Koeman’s side as the newfound 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation arguably seems to extract his best qualities and conceals his most noticeable flaws. The Spaniard is considered lethal, and a vital source of penetration situated higher up the field. With slick spells of possession in the centre, his runs from wide are almost gone unnoticed.
However, in spite of Alba’s achievements thus far and enhancements in his gameplay, issues that have tainted the talented Spaniard’s career still prove to be a thorn in his side, overcoming him in arguably the worst moments. Big games and Jordi Alba appear to have developed an incredibly toxic relationship as the 32-year-old has, on countless occasions, been a victim of his feeble mindset, tarnishing his legacy in the process.
The Copa del Rey final will once more be a huge encounter with a crucial source of silverware on the line for the Blaugranas. A win will undoubtedly elevate their status, uplift the morale of the team and surely prove to be their saving grace this season. Unfortunately, a game of this magnitude is also the perfect breeding ground for Alba’s antics. As promising as his season may have been, he has still proven to be unreliable in pressure situations.
Blitzing forward, he is known to be a menace, but in the defensive third, poor decision making is often visible. In the recent Clásico, Alba’s assist for Mingueza may have overshadowed his lack of focus defensively, but it must not be forgotten that he was a major reason why Fede Valverde was able to comfortably cruise past the Barcelona midfield and provide Benzema with the pre-assist. After enjoying one of the best patches of his career, Alba fell prey to the big game syndrome on the night it mattered most.
While that defeat was not entirely the number 18’s fault, it was a testament to his habitual blunders. In the Spanish Supercup final against Athletic Bilbao, Alba was once again one of the major culprits, proving to be undependable in set pieces and as confused as a lost sailor in defence, suffering at the hands of Iñaki Williams most notably. Scoring an own goal against the very same opposition in the league was another dent on his resumé. The fact that Alba contributed heavily to Valencia’s Copa Del Rey victory in the 18/19 season also devalues his presence in critical games, with both goals from Valencia easily avoidable, had the Spaniard not fumbled cheaply.
For the first goal, Alba came instantly rushing to block the scorer but was sent to the cleaners as he gravely mistimed his run. On the second occasion, the 32-year-old enabled Valencia’s winger to charge past him seamlessly as he went onto assist the final dagger. Admittedly, Culés have done their best to move on from the past in an attempt to forget and forgive. Having made some huge strides this campaign, clinging on to errors that any mere mortal is capable of committing does seem nonsensical.
Even so, despite efforts made to channel more faith in Alba, his recent comments have only made matters worse. As a leaked conversation between Alba and Piqué was made public by the media after the Clásico, concerns are again beginning to mount over his mentality. Even though Piqué appeared to be optimistic regarding Barça’s chances in the Copa Del Rey, all Alba had to offer in response was, “I don’t know.”
Completely ignoring the progression Barcelona made after proceedings, disregarding the fact that a point is the least Barça deserved, and most importantly, forgetting the club’s ability to bounce back this season, a meagre “I don’t know” is all the full-back gave in response. Of course, drawing conclusions based solely on a 10-second clip would be unjust, yet, given Alba’s past of wavering when it matters most, it really does not come as a surprise. The Anfield annihilation still remains fresh in memory, a wound that is yet to heal fully.
To play or not play, that is the question
As the full-back made a mockery of himself under the lights, his breakdown at half-time when the comeback was not even completed simply implies his pessimistic nature. Thus arrives the million-dollar question: do Barcelona run the risk of playing Alba in a game where the stakes are this high?
Considering Alba’s recent comments and reputation in knockout stages, fielding him in a game that holds such value for Barça’s campaign is inarguably a risk. The brand of football Barcelona have been playing comprises of collective strength, which emphasizes on every individual playing a vital role. One loose screw is all it takes to disrupt the team, and it’s fair to say Alba has proven to be that loose screw on several occasions before.
Nonetheless, the Blaugranas are incredibly limited, not yet possessing the privilege to have any firm competition in Alba’s position. As frustrating as his shortcomings may be, there is still no denying that his “good days” earn him the title of one of the best full-backs in the world. An additional factor is that he has, at the very least, not crumbled in any of the previous Copa del Rey knockout stages. Against Granada and Sevilla, his contributions were absolutely vital, particularly his performance against the Nazaríes, where a blistering brace enabled his side to seal qualification.
Barça are certainly running a risk, but this risk could potentially pay dividends if Alba shows a more daring and composed version. Making a sudden change in the final seems unlikely and could potentially hamper the team’s harmony.