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Sergiño Dest

Ajax to Barcelona, €26m

There is little question that Barcelona have struggled to replace Dani Alves since his departure for Juventus in 2016. Not only was the Brazilian so instrumental in so much of their remarkable run of success during those previous eight years, he had a fine understanding with Lionel Messi, who so often played in front of him, and, at full-back, excelled in a role that contributed so much to their admired style of play.

Barça’s attempts to find a successor extended to recruiting Nélson Semedo, who has since moved to the Premier League with Wolves, and sacrificing Sergi Roberto from the midfield role where he is perhaps at his best – until, that is, the arrival of Sergiño Dest from Ajax for a fee that could reach €26m. “I have no doubt that he will be a very useful player for Barça,” said their manager Ronald Koeman upon the 19 year old’s arrival. “He spent last season in Ajax’s first team, in the Champions League. That experience will help the player and also the US national team.”

Tactical analysis
Dest is a particularly attack-minded full-back who, though comfortable on the left, is at his best from the right. He is ambitious in possession, when he demonstrates admirable flair while attacking one-on-one and, instead of driving forwards and then crossing, favours following stepovers with overlapping runs wide of his opponents. He is a strong crosser of the ball when he resists delivering first time to instead take at least one touch, and potentially to judge the best teammate to target, and is similarly capable of driving infield to offer a different angle of cross, or a cut-back.

When taking either option he makes intelligent runs, owing to his understanding of how best to support his teammates and offer them options for attacking passes or to expose weaknesses he may have identified in the opposing team. Those runs are often penetrative and take him into the penalty area, from where he seeks to make quick combinations with the attackers alongside him.

When he is advancing into the inside channel he also provides a shooting threat from outside of the penalty area but, while it is his movement that often invites him to do so, his execution lacks accuracy. That he has learned to occasionally take a touch across his body to shoot with his left foot is recognition of both that and the difficulty involved in shooting with his right, from the right side of the penalty spot, and therefore across a crowded area.

That he also has explosive qualities makes him effective when making recovery runs, potentially at high speeds – he recovered an average of 4.6 balls per match throughout the 2019/20 Eredivisie season. Other teammates may have won possession with greater frequency, but the intensity of Dest’s press and his ability to negate attempts from opponents at attacking infield by curving that press and using the touchline to his advantage (below), often via tackles and interceptions, proved a strength and contributed to those teammates blocking attempted switches of play or boxing opponents in.

Role at Ajax
Ajax largely favoured a 4-2-3-1 during Dest’s time in their first team, even if there were also occasional uses of a 4-3-3. Their use of a double pivot meant a central box was often formed with their striker and number 10, and the two forming the double pivot protecting wider spaces during defensive transitions, when their full-backs advanced. Dest and the respected Nicolás Tagliafico were those full-backs, and therefore both posed a significant attacking threat.

Donny van de Beek, Edson Álvarez, Lisandro Martínez, Carel Eiting and Ryan Gravenberch all played in central midfield during 2019/20, and were crucial in encouraging the fluid nature of attack Ajax offered, and the extent to which their full-backs advanced to attack. They advanced with an asymmetrical shape; one full-back pushed forward at a time and, when the relevant wingers – usually Hakim Ziyech or Quincy Promes – moved infield, the full-back was left with space to attack into.

The movements made by Van de Beek and, in particular, Ziyech proved useful in creating those spaces for the full-backs behind them, and Dusan Tadic’s intelligent movements off the ball as a false nine gave Dest and Tagliafico another option between the lines. Dest’s versatility, similarly, encouraged those wingers to attack as a winger traditionally would (above) – around the outside of their opposing full-back. If Dest drifted infield to slide passes to between the opposing full-back and central defender,  Tagliafico remained wide and moved into an advanced position to contribute, further forwards, to that attack.

Dest’s ability to delay attackers when one-on-one gave his teammates time to move across and launch their counter-press during the periods they were defending. Whenever Ajax regained possession high up the pitch on Dest’s side they showed their quality in small areas, with frequent bounce passes, quick combinations and third-man runs to find a way out of pressure. Dest is comfortable executing each, which proved particularly influential when Ajax encountered intense counter-pressure. By contributing to their press Dest played a significant role in Ajax being able to recover the ball high up the pitch, and in pinning their opponents back in their defensive half. Even if possession wasn’t directly and immediately won, they regularly maintained pressure in dangerous territory.

Sergiño Dest

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