If, by some miracle, your first glimpse of Ousmane Dembele was his utterly spectacular, technically sublime goal against Real Madrid in Saturday’s preseason Clasico in Dallas, then you’re going to snort with derision when I assure you that it’s a blessing for Barcelona that the France international is determined to leave for Paris Saint-Germain.
His goal, which put the Spanish champions 1-0 ahead on their way to a 3-0 win, was the epitome of technique, judgement, concentration and athleticism. There can be no question about that. It was also the epitome of what Dembele has been consistently incapable of producing since forcing his move from Borussia Dortmund to Barcelona six years ago.
Xavi, his coach, keeps telling him he can be the best in the world. Former Camp Nou president Josep Bartomeu claimed Dembele was “a much better player than Neymar” and, still more incredibly, current Barcelona boss Joan Laporta made the case that “I still think he’s better than Kylian Mbappe.” They, and it would appear PSG manager Luis Enrique, all believe in Dembele’s talents, but sadly, it’s an illusion. And not an uncommon one.
It’s like the perpetually erratic golfer who every so often hits one out of the screws, and that’s the shot to keep him coming back. Or the fisherman who’s as addicted to talking about the size and the power of “the one that got away.”
Far more than he’s ever harnessed his athletic pace, explosive sprinting, ambidextrous dribbling or that ferocious shot he possess, Dembele has unleashed the massive power in the potential of what might happen. It’s the dream his most devoted fans have of creating greatness, majesty, and elite performance — even though the odds should be telling Bartomeu, Laporta and Xavi to get real.
It’s a glaring fact that Dembele fits into a group containing Phillipe Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann and Samuel Umtiti who have soared elsewhere, noticeably achieved and cost a fortune for Barcelona to bring in, but for one reason or another, failed to grow and thrive once their hugely expensive move to Camp Nou materialised. Fans keep waiting for Dembele to develop into that uber-talent he’s always projected to be, but it seems unlikely after all these years.
Of course, not all of this is Dembele’s fault or problem. There are only three or four players anywhere in the world who can match some of the talents that keep football coaches drooling over what they think they could do with the 26-year-old in their teams.
Dembele’s 0-to-60 Maserati-style explosiveness is not unique, but to then be able to erupt into complex dribbling actions, at that speed, to maintain the velocity over 50 or 60 metres and to have absolutely identical power of control with your left and right foot — probably only Vinicius Junior, Neymar and Mbappe are truly in that bracket. There are times, too, when Dembele strikes the ball with such clean, technically exquisite power that it looks like his net-bound shot is rocket launched.
These are the bewitching abilities, rare across planet football and brilliant for spectators and sponsors to watch that, if packaged together in a player who knows what he or she is doing — whose brain, temperament and ambition all ruthlessly match the technical armoury — make someone a Ballon d’Or winner and true great. The trouble with the hero/antihero of this column is that he’s not even close to harnessing all of his abilities, or perhaps how much work that would involve to be as ruthless as he needs to be.
Ever since he arrived at Barcelona — signed in a panic by a football department asleep at the wheel for far too high a price after Neymar was swept up by Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 — there has been a frustration around this potentially brilliant winger.
Dembele, from his very first matches in Blaugrana back in 2017 right up to the end of last season, will make a bad decision, misplace an easy pass, fluff a clear shot on goal, choose one dribble too many and look at the resulting failure with an expression of “… how did that happen?” He’ll look at his boots, as if they might be on the wrong feet. He’ll shake his head, as if this is just some raw deal that fate has in store for him on this particular night, and look puzzled as if to say, Hey ho, no biggie; I’ll be back in 10 minutes and then, for sure, things will fall into place for me.
Neither in his choices, his consistency, his expressions nor his body language is there any indication that he realises he’s done this a hundred times before. Nor is there any real upswing in his efficacy.
Now, let’s be absolutely clear here. This is 100% not a hit piece on Dembele. He’s flawed, but aren’t we all? He’s outrageously gifted and when it clicks, he’s devastatingly hard to defend. He’s learned a lot, particularly under Xavi, about when to track back, how hard to work defensively. He’s well liked by his teammates, now that maturity has begun to seep in.
Just to dip into the old saying that is often attributed to Mark Twain, about there being three kinds of lies (“lies, damned lies and statistics”), Dembele’s stats at Barcelona can tell two very different stories.
Since that €140 million transfer in 2017, this elusive talent has won seven club trophies, including three LaLiga medals, played 11 matches across the past two World Cups for France, winning one and ending as a beaten finalist in the other. That’s enough to make some judges dizzy with excitement.
The other way of looking at the numbers is that since Dembele signed for them, Barcelona have played 332 competitive matches. The Frenchman has started 119 of them, and played a full 90 minutes in a scant percentage of those. Whether due to injuries or loss of form, that alone is an atrocious record.
Then think of the myriad times when either some Dembele magic, or a sublime move happening around him, has ended with him unable to do the simple part: whether it’s scoring the goal, creating one, sealing defeat for a big rival or securing a trophy.
Xavi has worked hard on this young man’s psyche. At a time when Dembele was getting married and becoming a father, Xavi spent time on personal coaching, getting to know Dembele better than any coach since Thomas Tuchel at Dortmund (for whom Dembele played in 2016-17), and he drummed some defensive responsibility into him. Though it’s been to little effect.
Dembele started fewer than half the LaLiga matches last season, he didn’t tip the balance in any of Barcelona’s four disastrous Champions League matches against Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, he was injured for the Europa League defeat to Manchester United and he continued his miserable record of never having scored a competitive goal against Real Madrid.
As you read this, Dembele’s agent, Barcelona and PSG are trying to work out a deal. They’ll likely succeed, too. The transfer fee will bear little relation to Barcelona’s overall outlay on the player, while the money they bring in will do very little to help either their financial relationship with LaLiga or their transfer market muscle.
And, really, who’d be shocked if, somewhere down the line, the Champions League draw pairs a Luis Enrique-coached PSG starring a suddenly incisive Dembele with Xavi’s Barcelona? Not me.
But here’s the rub: This Bambi-young Barcelona, a squad that is cute and interesting but continues to show rubber legs when they try to balance under the spotlight, no longer needs dreams of what he might do or illusions of just imagine what he’ll be like one day when it all clicks! Xavi’s squad, whether he likes it or not, needs to deliver.
If that becomes a habit forged by players who might not quite have Dembele’s divine talents but who do possess grit and consistency and ruthless determination to win, whatever the odds against them, then that should make fans and executives of that club say to their French enigma: “Merci, mais au revoir Ousmane.” Thanks, Ousmane, but goodbye.