Football or ‘soccer’ in the United States of America has been on the rise for many years. Once a country that was never viewed as a footballing nation, it seems that the beautiful game cannot be ignored anywhere. Though basketball, American football, and baseball still remain more popular, there is no denying the growing interest in soccer.
At the international level, the women’s team completely dominates world football. They are the most successful international women’s football team, producing some of the most icon female players. Having won four FIFA Women’s World Cups, they are some of the most vocal in getting women’s football recognised globally.
Similarly, the men’s team is on the rise. In 2009, they were ranked as the 9th best international team in the world. They have had strong finishes in World Cups in recent appearances, making the round of 16 twice since 1994 and even quarterfinals in 2002.
Major League Soccer, the club league in the United States, is becoming more respected. Footballing legends such as Zlatan Ibrahimović, David Villa, Wayne Rooney and Bastian Schweinsteiger have all played there. Attendances at games are also seeing more people. In 2019, Atlanta United FC saw average attendances on 52,510 people, exceeding most European clubs. Other MLS clubs see average attendance figures well over 20,000.
However, one of the greatest indicators of the sport growing in America is the decision made by Sergino Dest to play for the national team. Dest had the opportunity to play for the Netherlands and was sought after by Ronald Koeman, the manager at the time. Ultimately, the defender chose to play for the United States, which many found strange.
Sergino Dest before Barcelona
Sergino Dest joined the youth system at Ajax in 2012. Like with many that come through the ranks at the Dutch club, Dest learned a variety of positions before establishing himself as a full-back. He quickly rose through the club’s youth teams before establishing himself in the first team in 2019.
Ajax is one of the best clubs in the world at developing young stars. Players at de Godenzonen are drilled in improving their technical skills and also tactic awareness. As well as being talented and a great footballer, they must be able to understand football and why doing certain actions are important. Making certain run, finding specific spaces on the pitch, playing the correct passes and the body shape when you receive the ball are just some of the basic understandings players must have at Ajax.
Barcelona’s number two certainly possesses many of these attributes. However, when rumours of Sergino Dest’s move from Amsterdam first emerged, many were sceptical. At the time, Barcelona and Bayern Munich were the two teams fighting for his signature. He still had a lot to develop and only had one year of experience in the first team at Ajax. It seemed too large a step for just a 19-year-old.
“I had to choose between Bayern and Barça, it was not easy. But Barça is the club of my dreams. I saw a lot of opportunities here. New signings were being made, Koeman wanted me, so I thought it would be a good idea to sign for Barça.”Sergino Dest
Some Ajax fans also felt he was premature in leaving the club and did not stay long enough to repay them for his years of training. Others such as Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek all experienced huge success at the club before moving on.
Proving the doubters wrong
Since his move in October to Barcelona, Sergino Dest has been a fan favourite with Culés. The United States international is the type of right-back that the Blaugrana have not had since Dani Alves. Sergi Roberto has been a great make-shift full-back, but it is not his natural position. Nélson Semedo had the physical skills, being quick and strong in the tackle, but lacked that essential tactical awareness. Though comparisons can be dangerous, and players want to create their own legacy, there are some similarities.
Both Alves and Dest are attack-minded full-backs and push forward at any given opportunity. They are comfortable playing wide and coming inside to create space. So far, Dest has done this almost perfectly, being such an asset in helping his team break the opposition’s press. The two defenders link well with others and can play in tight areas of the pitch, exchanging quick one or two touch passes. Lastly, they can confidently dribble with the ball and take risks trying to get past their opponents.
However, when departing Ajax, Dest was seen as unpolished and, though strong going forward, struggled in his defensive duties. These questions over his defensive capabilities have been forgotten. For years now, Barcelona’s right flank has been its Achilles heel, with teams exposing it frequently. In the games where Sergino Dest has featured for Barcelona, the defence has been a lot more solid.
The 20-year-old has already put in several memorable performances for Barça this season. In El Clasico, he was arguably the best player on the pitch for the Catalan side. He has also shone in the UEFA Champions League this campaign. Most notably scoring his first goal for Barcelona against Dynamo Kyiv and producing a fine display.
It is not just the right-back’s impressive displays on the pitch, but the mental strength he has already shown in his career. Deciding to choose the United States of America over one of the best international teams in the world, the Netherlands. Leaving Ajax at just the age of 19 and choosing a troubled Barcelona over treble-winning Bayern Munich. Sergino Dest is already showing signs of becoming one of the worlds most complete defenders under Barcelona.
David Alaba is the ideal short-term replacement for Busquets at Barcelona
Barcelona’s 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain served as a further reminder for a lesson they should have learned years ago. In yet another important game, the team failed to match their opponent’s quality and energy. The defence was unstable, the midfield overrun, and the attack non-threatening.
With so many key players nearing the end of their careers – at least at the highest level of world football – Barça must make the proper moves to replenish and reignite their squad. Left-back Jordi Alba, centre backs Clement Lenglet, Gerard Piqué, and defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets all featured in the humiliations against Bayern Munich and Liverpool, with three of them playing against Roma the year before (2018). If anything, this shows the club’s refusal and stubbornness to make the moves necessary for competing at the highest level.
These players – some of them club legends – still have a lot of quality and can help the team in various ways, however, there need to be clear replacements in line for the day they eventually leave. In particular, Barça need a new centre-back, a new left-back, a new striker, and crucially, a new central defensive mid. However, instead of going all out for three different players, there is one man who can serve as the perfect deputy in each role.
Presenting: David Alaba
After being with Bayern Münich for over a decade, David Alaba recently announced his intention to leave the club once his contract expires in the summer. He is set to be one of the most highly sought-after free agents, with clubs like Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Barcelona fighting to sign him. Presidential candidate Joan Laporta is reportedly a huge fan of the Austrian international and would want to sign him should he win the presidency.
Alaba has made a name for himself as one of the most versatile players in the world. He started his career as a left-back for Bayern, solidifying himself as one of the world’s best. When Pep Guardiola arrived in 2014, he took advantage of Alaba’s technical abilities and utilized him as an inverted full-back. Instead of darting down the flanks, he took up more central positions in the midfield.
Over the last two seasons, he has played the majority of his minutes at centre-back, helping lead Bayern to the treble and sextuple. With the Austrian national team, he has played all over the pitch but mainly in midfield.
His versatility would undoubtedly serve Barcelona well, being plugged into various positions that the team need, but more than that, he has all the attributes to make the number 6 position his own, at least temporarily.
In a 4-3-3 formation, the number 6 is the centre defensive midfielder. This player is the anchor of the team, the one responsible for breaking up offensive attacks, recycling possession, and dictating tempo. It is one of the most demanding positions on the pitch.
Sergio Busquets has filled that role for Barcelona for over the past decade and earned his name as one of the position’s best of all time, if not the best. The 32-year old has made 610 appearances for the Blaugrana, gracing the pitch with his composure, passing, and vision. Many clubs choose to have their defensive midfielder(s) fit the “destroyer” archetype, players who are extremely physical and aggressive with their tackles, but that was never Busquets’ forte. Instead, he dominated the defensive side of the game with smart interceptions and astute tackles.
Unfortunately, over the last two seasons, age has caught up to him and severely limited his physical attributes. His metronomic passing and vision are still elite, but his inability to close down opponents, track-back with pace and successfully press like he used to have all diminished. This was all too apparent against PSG, where he was consistently caught out of position and could not provide the backline with the proper cover.
Given the importance of his position, the fact that Barcelona have not yet lined up a replacement for him is beyond comprehension. There are no standouts in the youth academy or current squad that fit his profile (most fill other midfield roles), so naturally, Barça have to look elsewhere. Then again, replacing Sergio Busquets was never going to be an easy task.
A Temporary Fix?
One of Barça’s looming problems over the past few seasons has been the lack of a sporting project, one that acts as a blueprint for everything the club does. Countless players have been brought in to fill in squad deficiencies temporarily, and many more have failed to live up to expectations. While Alaba would admittedly be a temporary fix, there is no better alternative on the market or club to fill in Busquets’ role. He is the perfect fit for Barça in that role and others and will lube the transition into the new era with ease.
As aforementioned, Alaba has all the attributes necessary to be Barcelona’s next number 6. He would be 29 at the start of next season but could still offer a few seasons at a high level, at least until a long-term replacement is found.
Defensively, Alaba makes up for lack of brute tackling with a cerebral reading of the game and expert positioning. In this season’s Bundesliga, he is averaging 2.04 tackles plus interceptions per game. He would also bring much-needed energy and the physical attributes necessary to pressing and closing down opponents. This would do wonders for a Barça team who need to amp up their intensity.
When building up from the back, Alaba can naturally slot in between the two centre-backs, much like Busquets has throughout his career, providing cover for marauding full-backs and an outlet into midfield, whether through passes or ball carries.
Offensively, his passing, whether short or long, balls, composure, and vision would serve the team immensely well. His tactical intelligence would also see him fit right into the squad. Among the top five centre-backs in the Bundesliga, Alaba is in at least the 96th percentile (per 90 minutes) of various stats: passes into the final third (8.68), passes into the penalty area (1.10), progressive passes (6.59), progressive carries (7.21), and progressive carrying distance (225.21 yards).
These stats are extremely telling. He’s leagues ahead of most centre-backs in terms of ball-playing and is an elite distributor of the ball. That, paired with his on-the-ball ability and defensive acumen, make it perfect for him to move higher up the pitch and slot in at centre defensive mid.
At Barça, Alaba can form the base of a midfield trio with Frenkie de Jong and Pedri, with Sergio Busquets, Riqui Puig, and Illaix Moriba coming off the bench, to name a few. That trio’s potential combination of composure, vision, and quality on both sides of the ball would surely do wonders.
A Sinking Ship
The Catalans need a lot in order to get back to competing at the highest level. Holes on and off the pitch are growing larger by the day, and plugging them in with ill-informed transfers won’t help. On the other hand, if David Alaba is brought in with the clear intention of making him the starting defensive midfielder, even for only a few seasons, while slowly phasing Busquets out, the team would greatly benefit from it. Furthermore, his versatility could see him slot into a myriad of other positions if needed.
His salary demands are reportedly high, but the quality he would bring is unparalleled, especially given the scarcity of players Barça can target for the number 6 position. He is a player tailor-made for the Camp Nou. Additionally, if the Catalan giants lose heavy-earners like Philippe Coutinho, Samuel Umtiti, and maybe Antoine Griezmann/Ousmane Dembele, fitting the Austrian in will be far from complicated. Not to mention how much space Messi’s departure could open up.
With the right moves, this sinking ship can slowly but surely stay afloat and get back to ruling the high seas.