USA international Josh Sargent has started the new Bundesliga 2 season for Werder Bremen on the right wing, rather than as a central striker. So what is his best position?
The 21-year-old has been considered a centre forward for most of his youth career and at professional level until now, but perhaps it is time to ask the question: have we been looking at him wrong? What if he isn’t a centre forward at all? What if he is more effective elsewhere?
It bears consideration. The Bremen attacker has made 72 league appearances for the club as he enters his third full season in Germany, 46 of which have been as a central striker, either alone or with a partner. That has yielded a total of 13 goal involvements (eight scored, five assists) at an average of one every 220 minutes.
Watch: Sargent's brace against Düsseldorf on Matchday 2
It is a respectable return, but hardly prolific. Admittedly there are other contributing factors: he is a young man in a foreign country, adapting to a new language and culture, and his introduction to senior football has been in a struggling side battling relegation, before ultimately dropping to Bundesliga 2 at the end of last season.
His numbers may well have been different had Bremen’s fortunes also been different. After all, Sargent has shown a predatory instinct, scoring within seconds of coming off the bench on his debut in 2018, and following that up days later with a goal against high-flying RB Leipzig.
Yet whatever the reason, he has not been able to show that consistently. That is not meant as a slight; it could in fact be the reason why both former Bremen coach Florian Kohfeldt and current boss Markus Anfang have fielded him away from a central position.
Watch: Sargent coming of age in Bremen
Towards the end of last season, Kohfeldt sent Sargent out on either the right or left wing in four of his last six outings. This term under Anfang, Sargent has started both of Bremen’s games on the right.
“We only play with one central striker and we can therefore only play one of our strikers there,” said Anfang at the start of this campaign. Niclas Füllkrug has been preferred in that role, with Sargent on the right side of attack in either a 4-3-3 or a 4-1-4-1 formation.
Does that mean Füllkrug is a better centre forward? That is arguably the wrong way of looking at it. Perhaps the more pertinent question should be: “is Sargent a better all-round player, rather than a goal-getter?”
What if, for example, Sargent’s value to his team isn’t in the goals and assists he provides, but his overall contribution? It is not unheard of for successful attackers to have low numbers in those particular metrics, although it is rare.
The most prominent current example is arguably former Hoffenheim attacker Roberto Firmino. He is an indispensable part of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool team, yet his goal involvements are way below those of teammates Sadio Mane and Mo Salah.
“When I think about Bobby I don't think about scoring,” Klopp once said of the Brazilian. “I think about how important he is. I'm not interested in that number [goals scored] because he is the connector for our team. He's so important for us.”
Sargent fulfils a similar role at Bremen. He excels at the metrics that are far less tangible: reading of the game, tactical awareness, positioning and tracking back.
"Josh’s absence really hurt us and it's the biggest compliment you can pay him, that you could really notice that he wasn't there," said Kohfeldt after Sargent missed Bremen’s Matchday 9 defeat by Wolfsburg last season.
"Josh is extremely important for our team," said Clemens Fritz, a former Bremen and Germany midfielder who now heads up the club's professional football department. "The amount of work he puts in, the stability he gives us in terms of defence - I've been really impressed by the way he's executing all that. We need that intensity. Josh is such an unbelievable team player.”
The people in the know, then, are well aware of his qualities. Which brings us to Sargent playing on the flank. He has made 25 appearances either as a deeper playmaker or on the right or left for Bremen, scoring five goals – including his double against Fortuna Düsseldorf at the weekend - and chipping in with two assists at an average of one goal involvement every 195 minutes.
In other words, he retains a goal threat even when he is not the central striker, but is able to help the team in other ways too. He may not have the pace or dribbling ability to get past a defender, but Sargent is invariably forward-thinking. He makes probing diagonal runs to pull his markers out of position and is always looking for a teammate higher up the pitch, rather than going for a safe pass and playing the ball backwards.
The timing of his run for his first goal against Düsseldorf was superb, arriving late into the box to score, while his header was a brilliant example of his strength and positional awareness.
“I’ve scored two in one game for the USA national team before, but that’s it,” Sargent said afterwards. “The win will give us confidence. I’m really happy for the team.”
It is safe to assume that the feeling is mutual. And on current form, his place in the side is assured - wherever that may be.
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