Let’s briefly turn our attention to several USA internationals who, for various reasons, did not join their teammates for the recently-completed World Cup qualifiers against Mexico and Jamaica.
Here, I am talking about the plights of John Brooks and Josh Sargent, who were left off the roster due to recent lack of form, and Sergiño Dest, who was forced to stay in Barcelona due to a minor back injury. Apart from avoiding the overseas flights and having to watch Friday’s dos-a-cero on TVR, what do they have in common?
All three head into the international break having seen the skippers with whom they started the season recently fired. For Brooks, this already happened three games before the break, however both Dest and Sargent will suit up for their new bosses for the first time this coming weekend.
So, what do these changes mean for these three players? Let’s take a deep dive into the situations.
Sergiño Dest and the Two Legends
In Spain’s La Liga, the quality of the pagentry, drama and intrigue surrounding the game off the field is almost as important as the quality of the product on the field. The standard of play in Spain is pretty darn good, so one could imagine that a coaching change for one of the two pillars of the league, particularly when the incoming coach is one of the greatest team legends, was met with an obnoxious amount of fanfare.
In fact, the return of one Xavi Hernández to Barcelona as coach has been expected and teased pretty much since the day that he left Camp Nou in 2015, probably even longer. This hasn’t been hurt by his widely successful stint at the helm of Al Sadd in Qatar, yes, Qatar, where he also spent his last four years as a player. His return to Barcelona started seeming imminent as early as January, 2020 when the Blaugrana were looking to move on from Ernesto Valverde, although he smartly stayed put in Doha, allowing Quique Setién and Ronald Koeman to crash and burn with the declining team before coming in as the new savior.
In the end, he’s still coming into a pretty dire situation, however, on the positive side, it has been one where the young American Dest has been able to thrive. Will he continue under the new guy?
First, let’s look at what Xavi faces. Considering Barca’s situation, both in their bank account and in the standings, reaching final 16 of the Champions League and finishing top-four in La Liga will frankly be enough for his first half-season to be considered a success. Even if one or both of these is not achieved, the pages for a long chapter about the second Xavi period at Barcelona are already reserved in the team’s history book, so he’ll be given a long leash.
The real pressure for Xavi begins next season, although Barcelona will be once again limited by lack of a big transfer budget. And again, they will have to mostly rely on free-agent signings like Memphis Depay (who’s been better than people give him credit for), Sergio Aguero (who will hopefully return to the field), or alternatively sell some players. The chance to play for Xavi’s Barcelona will be a draw for players, certainly not enough of a draw to lure Kylian Mbappé away from his Real Madrid destiny, but it will bring more signings the caliber of Depay & Aguero.
What about young Sergiño Dest? His spot as a regular contributor is most likely safe for the remainder of 2021, maybe beyond. Xavi will tweak things, and out of habit, might try to bring in some of that old Barcelona flavor where skill, style and possession are the main weapons of attack. Still, he’s stuck with the players he has until January 1, and will need to put the best players on the field. One way or another, Dest is one of the best eleven on Barcelona.
However, it’s hard to imagine that Xavi will continue to deploy Dest on the right side of a three-man front line as Koeman first tried in several games before his firing, and interim coach Sergi Barjuán continued in his brief time afterwards. Dest wasn’t a disaster, but also didn’t add enough to the attack to justify keeping him out of his far more effective deployment in the defense.
The American is a competent and even dangerous presence in the attack when bombing up from the backfield, or cutting in from the outside flank. However, it’s become clear that he’s most impactful when doing this in limited doses, namely when he catches the opposing wide midfielder or defender off-guard or with tired legs, rather than doing this over 90 minutes. Also, his finishing has proven to be an issue lately. Even without the absent Aguero, Xavi will have enough tools at his disposal to end this not-exactly-failed, but not-really-successful experiment.
This will likely return Dest’s focus to the defense, where he has been, in my opinion, a better performer this season. On his natural right side, the main competition will be Oscar Mingueza, primarily a central defender, occasionally a right back, who has been the primary choice at right back (with some help by a similarly-skilled Sergi Roberto) during the recent games where Dest has either been deployed in the attacking role, injured, or stuck on the left side of the defense when Jordi Alba was injured.
And what about in 2022? Barcelona won’t be able to bring in any big-money transfers in the winter window, and the free-signing market in winter is typically thin. In fact, they already signed the most high-profile free-agent defender who is available to start playing for the team in 2022 – Dani Alves. Another Barcelona legend whose term (2008-2016) coincided with many of the glory years, Alves was available due to financial conflicts with São Paolo, and will be available to start playing in January. In the meantime, he’s already back with the team with whom he proved himself as arguably the world’s best right back at the time.
For Dest, to say that these next few months will be the best positional learning experience that any young American has had might not be too much of an exaggeration. The 21 year-old will come out of 2021 a better player than he entered it, and will have a better career because of what will happen in the coming months.
What about in 2022 and beyond?
To suggest that Xavi only brought in Alves to help the younger players, and not to play a major on-field role would be simply foolish. Alves will play in 2022, and he will cut into Dest’s time on the field, even if only in a few games. Am I concerned about this? Not one bit. Alves is 38 years old, and will not be an every-game player, especially if the team has to contend with any kind of deep run in Champions League and Copa del Rey, on top of the exhausting league schedule and a mid-January trip to Saudi Arabia for the Supercopa de España. Considering the advantage of spending at least the next six months with one of the world’s all-time bests, it’s still a net-plus for Dest.
The danger lies in what comes after. Dest has value, and there is a good chance Barcelona can bring in considerably more than the €21 million (plus some add-ons) that they paid for him. If the season ends with Xavi not convinced that Dest is the right back to help bring his Barcelona back to the next set of glory years, the American could be adjusting to a new home in the final months before he flies to Qatar for the World Cup. We should already have some initial clues in the coming weeks as we see the new coach’s immediate preferences.
Josh Sargent and the Next Canary in the Coalmine
One week into the international break, Norwich finally made it official – Dean Smith, who was very recently fired by Aston Villa – will take over the helm for the Canaries. Let’s just start by saying that Norwich’s upper management appear to have screwed up with this whole situation. Reservations about Smith aside (we’ll get to that later), they it took them nine days over the international break to confirm the hire, after they reportedly spent most of the time unsuccessfully chasing Frank Lampard. Yeah, like that was ever going to happen.
How did they fumble the ball?
The hours directly after the final league games heading into an international break are usually the most dangerous for an under-fire coach, since this is the most convenient time for management to make a quick coaching switch, and give the new guy a good 10-12 days to arrive, get settled, get to know the players who weren’t on international duty, and have a smoother transition into the first round of games coming soon after the rest return.
Norwich lost nine of these days in their hopeless flirtation with Lampard, and only confirmed Smith on Monday, five days before they are back in action against Southampton. In short, they wasted their opportunity and ended up with a guy who was actually fired from his last job two days after their search began.
So, was it worth all the lost time for a guy like Smith, and are there any clues about how his arrival will impact Sargent’s prospects with the team? On both counts, this one gets a big “meh”. Norwich’s goal is to somehow avoid relegation, and in the likely case of failing that, once again fight for promotion back to the flight after their inevitable drop.
The Canaries are going to have to perform like a lower-midtable side for the rest of the season to gain enough points to avoid the drop. To his credit, Smith managed this standing with Villa in one of his two full season in the top flight (in the other, they barely avoided the drop on the last day), but he also had far superior talent.
This is where the problem for Sargent enters the game. The American has simply misfired for his new team, figuratively and literally. His embarrassing misses and general lack of a strikers’ instinct has cost his team points, and the forward position is a huge area where Smith will have to reinforce if he wants to have any hope to avoid the (admittedly highly lucrative) drop to the English second tier.
In short, the steps necessary for Smith to guide Norwich to survival are likely steps that will diminish Sargent’s already dimming hopes of a significant starting role for the rest of the season. This is never a good position for a player with still more than 2/3 of their season remaining.
The American could instigate a sudden and heroic revival on his own, and forge himself into an unavoidable force that Smith, or any other coach, would be begging to lead their front line. However, he couldn’t manage any better than short upticks of performance at Bremen, and his simple deficiency of fundamental instinct so far in his tenture at Norwich speaks poorly to his chances to start the trend with the Canaries.
Perhaps the best long-term opportunity for Sargent in his current situation would be for Plan B to come into effect, and Norwich to suffer relegation back to a league that they are set up to dominate the competition. This is where Smith can repeat his best successes with Villa, and Sargent could have a year to hone his skills against the slightly-less-formidable level of play in the Championship, where former Smith players Jack Grealish (who went on to become the most expensive English player of all-time) and Tammy Abraham sharpened their claws.
In short, Sargent’s new boss Smith is neither a tactical idealist nor a creative wizard, so it’s up to the American to fit his game into the pragmatic framework of a man who will have his team brutally scraping for every point they can possibly take each week.
John Brooks and the Man Who Fell Upwards
Since Wolfsburg’s hiring of recent Werder Bremen cast-off Florian Kohfeldt already happened three games before the break began, there is actually very little to speculate. In fact, this is practically a footnote, which is a good thing since few of you have likely had the patience to read this far in the article.
(sidenote: if anybody actually got to this point, I probably owe you a beer of gratitude, but as a warning, I’m even more obnoxiously verbose when the creative lubrication is inside my soul)
Prior to joining Wolfsburg on October 26, Kohfeldt’s only top-flight experience was at the helm of Werder Bremen for four forgettable seasons, which saw their decline from a middle-of-the-road 1. Bundesliga team to relegation into the 2. Bundesliga. To his credit, he did give Josh Sargent more than enough chances to show his worth as a top-flight striker on the failing team, which smoothed his way to a lucrative transfer to Norwich.
However, few would have expected Kohfeldt to be selected as the man to lead a team currently in the Champions League and having reasonable aims to get there again. It’s like showing up to work drunk, and finding out after a 3-hour midday nap on the break-room sofa that you got a promotion to run the place.
Skip forward to the start of the international break, and Kohlfeldt has been a surprising success, even if only with a small sample size. Wolfsburg has won all three of his games by a combined 5-1 margin, are back in the Bundeliga’s top-four, and in decent shape to qualify for the Champions League final 16.
More importantly for YA fans, Brooks has played the entirety of all three games, and there is no reason to suspect that this will change. The team has played well, the American has also played well, and the defense has only conceded one goal over three games. If anything, the bigger question for Brooks is whether he’s able to work his way back into Gregg Berhalter’s graces, not whether he can maintain his spot under Kohfeldt.
There are of course concerns about Kohfeldt based on his successively worse seasons at Bremen, however he has better tools at Wolfsburg, and just has to keep them at a level where they have consistently played for the last few seasons.
Who’s Next in Line?
These will hardly be the last significant coaching changes for YAs this season. Most leagues run for another six months, so there will be more firings and hirings.
Will Tyler Adams be adjusting under a new coach should RB Leipzig become skeptical of Jesse Marsch’s charismatic leadership and high-energy gameplan often lacking tactical nous? Will Matt Miazga’s coach at Alaves survive a poor run in the future that drops the team back into the relegation zone? Will Bryan Reynolds outlast Jose Mourinho if the Roma coach can’t stop the team’s current downward spiral? Perhaps Pep Guardiola will go on a drunken rampage through downtown Manchester and Zack Steffen will suddenly be in the running to start at Man City.
Coaching changes are the deus ex machina of any player’s career, so the best that any of us – players, fans or writers – can do is to take a cue from John Brooks’ situation, and make an evaluation after we already have a pretty good idea of what’s going on.