Benvingut, Serginho Dest, now for the hard part

Dest is here!

After one of the longest airplane trips in history and sending 21 million the way of Ajax in a series of payments, Sergino Dest, capped USMNT footballer, fullback(ish) and newest salvation, has arrived in Barcelona. And only the churlish minds recall the scene in the film “The Right Stuff,” when Gordo Cooper is about to go into space, and Gus Grissom says to him, “Just be careful you don’t screw the pooch.”

The road from hero to goat is a short trip, one that has been made by some immensely talented footballers. It’s also an easy one to make. Just ask Ousmane Dembele and Nelson Semedo.

In July 2017, FC Barcelona announced the transfer of Nelson Semedo from Benfica. So many, including me, had been calling for the transfer of this remarkable young player. He was 23, and absurd.

He had everything: pace, defending, was fearless on the dribble. He could chase down attacks, shut down opposing attackers. In the quest for a right back, it appeared the answer had arrived. In flashes, he and Dembele formed a confederacy of gazelles on the right side, playing with pace and abandon until the Frenchman’s hamstrings failed him for the first of many times. Then Semedo was alone. Rakitic plying his yeomanlike trade on that side helped some, as Semedo had a cushion, rather than acres of space behind him when he attacked, but then that went away as well. Managers had bigger needs for Rakitic, who was also starting to slow.

Then, suddenly, after being part of a domestic double his first season and another league title his second, it all started to go bad for Semedo, right about the same time it all started to go bad for the team. No winger, no help on the right side, a slow midfield suddenly meant Semedo was faced with hard choices. He couldn’t attack in full because who was going to get back? He couldn’t just defend because that right back is also supposed to be a winger. He ended up doing neither thing well enough and became a symbol of failure, excoriated by supporters and blamed for pretty much everything wrong with the defense. And off he went to Wolves. And there was much rejoicing.

In September 2020, Dest arrives. So many have been calling for the transfer of this remarkable young player who, like Semedo, has everything. And you hope that circumstances are different, that Fate will conspire to deal this talent a different hand. The signals are all good. Dembele is fit, and there is also Trincao. Frenkie De Jong is doing his thing in midfield, a busy space under Koeman where attackers track back and contribute to the press in a way that improves everything about the defense.

Modern football is placing demands on fullbacks like never before as the game and its pace makes managers adapt. We expect a modern fullback to attack like a winger but defend like a fullback. The game adapted, but Barça didn’t. The last pair of great fullbacks the team had was when Dani Alves and Eric Abidal were patrolling the flanks. But even back then, supporters were banging on Abidal for not attacking enough. It was already beginning.

Now, it isn’t a conincidence really that the two teams with the best fullback tandems, Bayern Munich and Liverpool, are dominating world football. One walked the Premiership and is looking set to do so again. The other won a treble, and sought to add Dest to its already-full roster of right backs. Talk about advance planning. Dest is everything that the modern fullback needs to be, and playing for FC Barcelona has been a lifelong dream of his. Now it’s come true.

Wishes have also come true for supporters, who should reemmber that Dest is 19. He wasn’t a locked-in starter for Ajax in the Eredivisie, a world that isn’t as harsh or accomplished as the one in which he now finds himself. He will make errors, will require patience. Not every young phenom starts out like Fati, and continues to glitter. We shouldn’t do what we have becoome so good at doing, which is crushing a player as soon as they don’t meet our outsized expectations.

This is true even as Dest isn’t some wide-eyed young player. He came to Barça instead of Bayern because he surveyed the landscape and saw only Sergi Roberto, who isn’t even a fullback. He’s an aging utility player who has lost a step shoved into a role. So when Bayern came calling, he probably looked at that roster and it made his decision easier. He will play more regularly at Barça a lot sooner than he would have at Bayern. Whether that is a blessing or a curse remains to be seen.

FC Barcelona has been reacting for years when it comes to the football squad, rushing around to plug a series of holes just as new ones are popping up. An entire squad aging at the same time? Who would have thunk it, except the people whose jobs it was to think about it, the same people who kept choosing to make “one last run for Messi” with geezers instead of doing what they should have been doing all along, and are finally, FINALLY doing this year.

The squad has added De Jong from last year, promoted Ansu Fati and integrated Pedri and Trincao this year, along with Dest. If Junior Firpo isn’t already a psychological wreck that’s another young player, along with Ronald Araujo. The club is also nosing around Manchester City CB Eric Garcia, looking to do in a single window what should have been done over years. Instead, Sergi Busquets is still starting in the hole, Jordi Alba is still starting at LB. Coutinho is still trying to find a home, and Pique is the elder statesman of the back line, part of a team that added Pjanic, an old player to replace an older player in Rakitic. There was talk of a revolution in the summer, and Messi even tried to be part of that seismic change. The ultimate result is more like unrest rather than revolution.

But Dest has a much better environment in which to frolic than Semedo did. He also has a coach who specifically wants him, so will do everything possible to ensure that he is allowed to settle and have the best opportunity to be successful. It’s such an exciting transfer, and it isn’t that hard to think of something we will probably be seeing very soon, which is a collaboration with Dest and Trincao working off De Jong, or Dest and Dembele working 1-2s up the right wing as Messi runs off them.

One key part of the Barça environment that hasn’t changed is the entorno. It lays in wait, ready to turn a heralded signing into a wastrel who should look for a better home so that the next hope can arrive. It happened with Semedo, it’s happening with Dembele. It doesn’t even take much for it to happen. Look at how quickly Andre Gomes was run out of town, how happily we bid Lucas Digne good riddance. Both are now thriving at Everton and we’re making excuses for what’s different there rather than checking the mirror. FC Barcelona is a hard place to play, a hard place to learn to play and a hard place to continue playing at. And that isn’t going to change with Dest, as happy as people are about his arrival.

What’s also important is to apply perspective. Semedo had all the physical and technical tools that Dest did. Circumstances changed for him. It happens all the time. We should hope that the same thing doesn’t happen for Dest and if it does, that we have learned from past mistakes.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.