The 19-year-old American had a breakout 2019/20 season, making him one of the most highly-rated young full backs in football. Could he be the next Ajax product to make the move to Barça? Let’s look at what he could offer the side.
Born and raised in Almere, Netherlands, Sergiño Dest is still yet to leave the nation in his club career. However, with a Surinamese-American father, he has always represented the United States national team, first at youth level, and now with the senior side. As a result, Ajax’s current 19-year-old promising right-back would become the first American to ever play for Barcelona if he were signed – although youngster Konrad de la Fuente might not be far off.
While no Americans have taken the field for Barça, there have certainly been plenty of former Ajax players. The connection between the two clubs’ style of play has allowed for many successful transfers from Amsterdam to Barcelona, and there are signs to suggest that Sergiño Dest could be next in line. Coming through the Ajax system, Dest is unsurprisingly calm and skillful on the ball, and he excels in the attack. His stats back this up, and show a player who seems to be ready to take the next step in his career.
Immediately, the attacking output of Dest stands out. For xAssists per 90 minutes, or expected assists – a measure of the probability of the shots he assisted resulting in a goal –, Dest was well above the league average at the 77th percentile. His 0.53 key passes per 90, and 1.05 deep completions – passes completed within 20 meters of the opposition goal line – per 90 ranks him even higher.
Where the teenager really stands out is with his 0.7 crosses into the box per 90. This is a truly elite tally, as it puts him just below the 98th percentile of Eredivisie’s full-backs. Clearly, Sergiño Dest is adept with his passing in attacking areas, an important skill to be possessed by a Barcelona full-back.
In terms of his progressive passing, Dest had a very low volume of just 6.84 per 90, but his efficiency with those passes was exceptional, with an 84.62% completion rate. So while he may be looking to add more to this area of his game, he at least shows quality and precision when he does attempt to play a progressive ball.
It is also worth noting that Dest prefers to progress the ball through dribbling and carrying more than most fullbacks. His skill, agility, and confidence are reflected with him coming in at the 95th percentile for dribbles per 90, and the 84th for progressive runs.
Meanwhile, Sergiño’s defensive numbers show a bit more to be worried about. He only completed 8.88 successful defensive actions per 90 last season, putting him in just the 11th percentile for Eredivisie full-backs. Some of this can be excused as Ajax tend to dominate in possession, and thus Dest does less defending than almost any other full back in the league. However, even when accounting for this possession gap, his possession adjusted interceptions per 90 are still below league average – just below the 41st percentile.
The redeeming factor for Dest’s defending is his efficiency. He won 64.29% of his defensive duels, putting him just above the 70th percentile. While his ball winning leaves much to be desired, it is at least encouraging that Dest doesn’t seem to get beat by attackers often.
To summarize, Dest is an incredibly active full back in the attacking third. He puts in a ton of crosses to the penalty area, and gets the ball to his teammates often in good shooting positions. To progress the ball, Dest doesn’t utilize his passing too often, but he is very inefficient when he does. Instead, he is adept at beating defenders and driving the ball forward when he has space. On the defensive side, a weakness of Dest is shown in that he doesn’t win the ball often, but he shows potential as he wins the majority of his duels.
To give these stats and Dest’s profile some context, let’s look at Barça’s current right back, Nelson Semedo.
For expected assists, key passes, and crosses into the penalty area, Semedo’s numbers are poor to mediocre, and well below Dest’s. He does have a higher cross completion rate than the American, but considering that it’s still below the league average, and that Dest makes over four times more crosses into the box per 90, that’s not too impressive.
The only attacking attribute where Semedo compares well to Dest is deep completions: Semedo made 1.04 per 90 (84.7th percentile for La Liga full-backs), while Dest made 1.05 per 90 (81.8th percentile for Eredivisie full-backs). Nonetheless, when you recall that Semedo has a far lower tally of expected assists and key passes, you can see that Dest is actually doing more with these completions close to the opposition goal.
The Portuguese bests the American for progressive passes per 90 – 7.37 to 6.84 – but his completion rate on those passes is 10% lower. The two do share at least one similarity: they both stand out more for progressing the ball with dribbling than they do with passing. While Dest was 95th percentile in dribbles and 84th in progressive runs, Semedo was 83rd percentile in dribbles and 91st in progressive runs. Even Semedo’s biggest doubters can’t deny his strength in dribbling, particularly using his pace to burst past opponents. But unfortunately for the former Benfica man, Dest also possesses these qualities.
While it’s hard to deny that Semedo is the safer option of the two defensively, and a more adept ball winner at the moment, Dest’s numbers are still not that far off. Semedo makes just 0.09 more successful defensive actions per 90 and 0.94 more possession adjusted interceptions per 90, while Dest’s win rate on defensive duels is actually higher by 3.15%.
Ultimately, the numbers are on Dest’s side. They show that he can replicate Semedo’s greatest asset, his dribbling while providing much more offensive threat. Semedo probably has the upper hand defensively, but with how the game is played today, full-backs in a bigger side can provide the team with far more value in attack than they do in defense. It’s impossible to not look at these numbers and think of Dest as the better fit for Barça, but the question then becomes whether or not he would be able to replicate this performance if the move was actually made.
Even though many have made the move from Ajax to Barça in the past, and even though many have been very successful, there will always be reasonable doubt over whether a player can make the jump from the Eredivisie to La Liga. That is certainly true for Dest. In this past Champions League campaign, Valencia, who finished 9th in La Liga, finished top of their group, two spots ahead of Ajax who were sent to the Europa League. When Ajax got there, they were eliminated in their first tie by Getafe, who finished 8th in La Liga.
No matter which way you look at it, the quality of La Liga is much greater than that of the Eredivisie. At the top of the table, the European places, midtable, all the way to the bottom, teams in La Liga have more resources and more quality. Dest would be defending against better wingers and forwards, and trying to attack against better full-backs and centre-backs. Would he still thrive against this consistently higher-quality opposition?
Sergiño Dest would have to get used to the higher demands of La Liga and Champions League | Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso via Getty Images
An additional concern with him is his inexperience in general. The 2019/20 campaign was his first with any senior football, meaning he has less than 1,500 minutes of top flight experience under his belt. Sergiño Dest only added 585 additional minutes in European competition – 405 in the Champions League, 180 in the Europa League – and is still yet to experience a Champions League knockout tie, which he would definitely have to be ready for at Barcelona.
As a result of this inexperience, Sergiño Dest is still a very raw player, and far from a finished product. He still has issues in his game that need to be filtered out with coaching and experience. Things like defensive positioning, understanding when and where to be progressive, and when to be conservative, can still cause issues for Dest. This is completely understandable for any young player, but if the board is looking for an immediate solution at right-back, it may raise concerns. As for any potential signing without much experience, and from a weaker league, there are questions as to whether or not Dest’s performance will translate to the next level.
In the transfer market there are no guarantees, especially when looking for the caliber of player that Barcelona want at right-back, so why not take a chance on Sergiño Dest? We have just seen a certain Canadian full-back win the treble with Bayern Munich as one of their best players. Where was he before his move to Germany? Playing in the MLS, as a left winger, at just 18 years old.
The story of Alphonso Davies should serve as an example for Barça’s recruitment of the right-back position, and in general. The club forcing itself to buy established players for huge fees has led to far too many flops in recent years. Now, especially with the tight financial situation brought on by the pandemic, why not spend smart on a young player who has all the attributes that we want in our full-backs? Especially when most of those attributes are missing in our current options.
While Dest is far from a finished product, with the proper coaching and development he could undoubtedly become one of the best full-backs in football. He is incredibly confident and skillful on the ball, efficient with his passing, and contributes a great amount to his team’s attack. With those building blocks already in place, if he could just develop in a few areas of his game, everyone would look back after three, five, even ten years with his current youth, and think how much of a bargain he was.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?
Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.
He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.
Tactical and Statistical Analysis
Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.
Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.
Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).
In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.
His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.
Where would he fit at Barça?
Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.
Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.
The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.
Should Barcelona pursue him?
There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.
There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.
He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.
While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.
On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.
Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.
Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.