Analyzing the positive and negative trade-offs of a potential position change for Barcelona’s Sergino Dest.
In modern football, the lines between the profile of a full back and the profile of a winger are more blurred than ever. A multitude of players in recent seasons have seen their career trajectories transformed or had their careers revived by a swap between these roles.
With the qualities and traits displayed by Sergiño Dest in his debut La Liga season, there may be some who think a change would benefit the American. Given that he is only 20 years old, there would be plenty of time for coaching and development if so. However, would a switch to a winger role truly make sense, and is it the most valuable option for the player and the side?
Dest vs other “hybrids”
For some background information, we will start by seeing how Dest stacks up to some winger-full back hybrids statistically. This will provide some insight into whether or not Dest shares those crucial traits that make such versatility possible.
One key area for a winger is the ability to beat defenders and drive with the ball, and Dest certainly sits in a high tier of dribbling fullbacks.
While slightly below the best of the best, Dest is close to some good company. Many players who have made the opposite switch from winger to full-back or are able to play both positions sit near the Ajax product in that top-right region.
When you swap out Dest’s ball-carrying to gauge his end product, another good quality for a potential winger, there are some more good signs.
Once again, the American sits below quite a few of the well-known hybrid names, but it is clear that he has some strong attacking qualities for a full back. Thus, he is at least a better candidate than the vast majority of defenders to become a winger.
Lastly, we can compare Dest to a group of these players using an array of their attacking metrics. As with all of these statistics, it is important to keep the context in mind. The players may be playing different roles in their sides, their teammates may be of lesser quality, their sides may have different tactics (some rely on crosses a lot, some do not) etc. But, this is a solid jump-off point.
While Dest is not among the top names in any of the metrics, he still largely holds his own. It could also be argued that as Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka is the only player here younger than Dest, and the American has only just finished his first campaign in the big five leagues, his numbers have the most potential for growth.
With all this in mind, the calls for Dest to become a winger are not necessarily reaching – there is at least some basis to them. Nonetheless, these are still only comparisons to players who have mainly made the opposite switch (winger to full back) or can play as a winger, which is not necessarily reflective of the quality required to line up out wide for Barcelona.
To try and truly answer this question of Dest’s positioning, a deeper look into his traits is needed. Only then can we get a decent sense of how his style and production would translate to a new role.
The most obvious benefit of moving Dest further up the pitch would be putting him in more dangerous positions. If you have a player who can dribble well and take opponents on, then putting him closer to goal would presumably mean he can do more post-dribble damage.
The Ajax product has shown great burst and technique in one vs situations, so giving him the license to drive at the opposing full-back could allow him to create more danger. Here are a few examples of this on display.
Images: Against Osasuna, Dest receives the ball in a winger-like position, drives at the defender, beats him to the outside, and creates space to put a ball into the box.
Images: Again Dest, receives the ball in an advanced wide area. He drives at the full back, uses stepovers to throw him off, and drives in a pass that reaches the feet of Martin Braithwaite.
Images: Against Atlético Madrid, Dest drives at the opposition left back, knocks the ball ahead and runs around him, and then looks to play into the box.
Images: Dest receives the ball in space, attacks the PSG left back, and sets himself up for a shot that strikes off the crossbar.
If he were to be pushed higher, as well as given more freedom to take players on, it could lead to more dangerous post-dribble situations like these. It may be simplistic, but being positioned closer to the goal means a dribble can result in a shot or killer pass more often.
Additionally, while the position switch would be seen as an attacking one, it could still yield value out of possession. Dest, having that defensive background and mobility, would provide a strong high-pressing presence if he played in the front three.
With a 33-year-old Lionel Messi in the attack, Dest has already been asked to step up and press in advanced areas quite a bit this season. Thus, Barça fans have seen an aggressive-defending version of the American in action.
Images: As Osasuna play the ball out to the wing, Dest steps aggressively, becoming one of the most advanced Barça players. He takes advantage of a heavy first touch by the pass recipient, and wins the ball.
Images: With Sevilla playing out from the back, Dest steps very high into the attacking third. He forces his man to take a negative first touch and launch a long ball, which Barça are able to win.
Images: Dest presses high to close down the opposition build-up. He is bypassed initially, but has the work rate and mobility to recover, still winning the ball back within the opposition half.
Images: Dest steps into the attacking third to pressure the recipient of an oncoming pass. He gets very tight, the opponent tries to let the ball run across his body, and Dest is able to shield it out of bounds for a Barça throw-in.
As a winger, Dest would be able to take on a great deal of pressing responsibility. This would not just be because of the American’s background as a defender, but also the suitability of his physical profile – high agility and stamina would make him a nuisance. As such, Dest could help break up opposition progression and win the ball in advanced areas.
Of course, Dest as a winger would not have only positive consequences. There are certain strengths of his that the team would also no longer benefit from if he were moved away from the backline.
The first example of this would be his ability to contribute in the build-up and escape from pressure. Dest is calm and confident on the ball and shows skill in tight areas. He is able to use his technique to weave in and out of pressure, and also some of that Ajax background to triangulate with teammates and combine. This makes the US international a useful asset in terms of getting the ball into the attack, to begin with.
Images: With Barça building out of pressure, Dest drops to receive the ball. He turns, squares up his man, and drives past him to the inside. He then lays the ball off to Messi, allowing him to drive at the backline with three runners to his left.
Images: Against Real Madrid, Dest receives a return pass following a throw-in. With his first touch, he drives inside between two defenders. He then cuts past another defender and switches play to the left flank, setting up a Barça attack.
Images: After playing a one-two with the winger ahead of him, Ousmane Dembélé, Dest drops to triangulate with the Frenchman and Frenkie de Jong. He plays the ball to de Jong, runs past his man, and receives the return pass. After driving towards the box, he plays a short pass to Antoine Griezmann, who ends up dummying it for Braithwaite (who then lays the ball off for a Messi shot).
You may also notice that in these examples, Dest is not looking to play a killer pass or precise cross. This is one of the ways in which starting from deeper benefits him, as he can be responsible for setting up an attack and passing to a creator like Messi without having to take much creative burden himself.
Going back to that comparison table earlier, the American certainly lacks the incisive passing ability of someone like Jesús Navas or Raphaël Guerreiro. Furthermore, according to Wyscout, out of the 299 fullbacks in the big five European leagues with 1000 or more minutes played in 2020/21, Dest was among the bottom 30 for cross completion rate.
Thus, while putting him higher up the pitch would allow his take-ons to take place in more dangerous areas, supplying the actual delivery after that is not a strength of his. Letting him use his dribbling and combination play to progress the ball and then play a simpler pass into a more dangerous creative presence is probably more valuable for the side.
In this example, you can actually see Dest taking the ball into the attacking third and then attempting a defence-breaking pass himself, which does not go so well.
Images: Dest carries the ball forward, but instead of playing short to Messi or one of the wingers, he tries to play the ball in behind himself. The weight of the pass is way off, and it is easily intercepted.
Not only does keeping Dest deeper help in the build-up and hide some of his weaker areas, which would be much more important as a winger, but playing him in attack would prevent a lot of the off-ball runs he likes to make from working.
Right now, Dest often relies on the fact that there is a ball-dominant attacker like Messi or Dembélé attracting the attention of the defence. This allows him to make runs off of the forwards and take advantage of their gravity.
Images: Even on Dest’s goal against Real Sociedad, the run he makes into the penalty area is possible because of the back line’s occupation with Messi and Dembélé. Dest is able to make his run off of this, taking advantage of the lack of focus on him. If he were one of the attackers himself, though, and had to drop between the lines and had the focus of the defense, these kinds of runs would not be possible.
Images: Against Dynamo Kyiv, Dest gets into a dangerous position, but it is once again because he was able to move off of the forward players. He overlaps Francisco Trincão, who draws in two defenders before playing Dest through, where the American cuts in past his man and lays the ball off for a shot.
On the defensive side, the detriment of moving Dest away from full-back is that you lose his value in terms of recovery speed and being a safe one vs one defender. Over the course of this season, Dest has shown this against some of the world’s most dynamic attackers.
Images: One vs. one with Vinícius Júnior out wide, Dest contains the Brazilian, anticipates his cut towards the endline, and shields the ball out for a goal kick.
Images: Dest tracks Kylian Mbappé off the throw-in, stays tight to the Frenchman, and times his sliding challenge to win a Barça throw.
Images: Dest follows Mbappé as he checks to receive the ball, stays tight as the Frenchman tries to turn, and shields him off of the ball to win possession.
Images: Barça lose the ball with many men high up the pitch, giving Valencia chance to counter. With his recovery speed, Dest is able to cut across and intercept the pass, winning the ball back before Valencia can attack Barça’s centre backs.
Images: Here, Ronald Araújo gets pulled up from the rest of the back line. Real Sociedad recognize this and send a ball over the top, but Dest reads it and is able to cut off his man, shutting down the major threat.
A deeper Dest can not only be more valuable defensively by going head-to-head against dynamic opposition wingers, but also by being somewhat of a safety net for the rest of the backline. With his recovery speed, the 20-year-old is able to make crucial interventions and shut down transitions or passes in behind.
With all of this in mind, the best route forward for Dest and the team seems to be for him to remain at full back – primarily, at least. The ability he provides to break the opposition press, defend one vs one, and cover ground outweighs the potential advantages of moving him further forward.
While it would be pleasant to see him consistently given the space and license to take on opposition defenders and press higher up the pitch, his lack of incisive passing and his aforementioned value in deeper areas probably prevents a full transition to the wing.
Still, though, the idea is not completely implausible. Dest has good attacking traits for a full back and stacks up decently to many full back-winger hybrids, so he could be plugged into the attack occasionally. Maybe if squad rotation is needed, there are injuries, or the opponent is weaker, the American could join the front three.
He has at least enough tools to contribute positively from that position, but ultimately, it still seems like his long term future is at right-back.