Serviceable is Failure: Ousmane Dembele

There is precious little to know about Ousmane Dembele. It’s not that he’s simple to understand or that he’s not a complex player, it’s that he’s 20 years old and has hardly had a chance to truly make a mark in world football. He has played for Rennes II, Rennes, and Borussia Dortmund. And all of that since 2014 when he was 17. He has been a darling of the Twitterverse for a while, ever since he was 18 and had been promoted to Rennes’ first team, but he has done very little high-level playing. That is not a knock against him. It is just a fact.

He has 61 appearances under his belt in top flight league play: 29 in Ligue 1 and 32 in the Bundesliga. He also has another 18 appearances in the Champion League (10), German Cup (6), and the German Super Cup (2). He has appeared in another 22 matches in the French fourth tier. He is not a consummate goalscorer, though he has netted 22 goals in the last 2 seasons in all competitions, including 2 in the Champions League.

If you wanted Dembele because you thought he was Neymar, he is not. They both ostensibly play forward, but Neymar is a transcendent talent who has a nose for goal: don’t forget that he had 105 goals in 4 seasons for Barcelona. Dembele may develop into such a player, but he seems more focused on passing, creating space, and playing almost as if he is a French Iniesta. Time will tell if he is truly a great fit, but he appears to provide a variety of options, ducking into the center to play passes between lines. He can dribble, he can pick his head up, he can divert defenders from space intended for another player. These are all things Neymar could do, of course, but Neymar is gone and the search for a different wrinkle in attack has begun.

Stats are hardly everything, of course, but it’s good to put things in perspective too:

Neymar also beats out Dembele in the most recent season in defense effort per 90 minutes, according to Squawka.com’s player comparison matrix, but not by a ton. Ousmane isn’t an out-and-out goalscorer, but he is 5 years younger than Neymar. Take Neymar’s stats from 4 years ago (when Neymar had just moved to Europe) and Dembele stacks up much more favorably. Tellingly, Neymar began as a better goalscorer, but Ousmane is a midfielder-cum-forward. He creates space for others, shifts positions to fit the moment’s needs, his eye always on feeding teammates. According to the following graphic, Dembele really does rove all over the place:

This is indicative of a much wider skillset than labeling him as a “forward” would otherwise suggest. Still, despite the price tag (€105m! Plus variables!), it is important to remember he is 20 years old and has a long career ahead of him. If Barcelona not only finds the right place for him, but nurtures him–possibly as an Iniesta backup for a few months, then as Iniesta’s replacement–his career could be storied. If they–and by that I mean us, we, me, you–heap pressure on him to perform at the highest level from the get-go, this could all turn out to be a massive financial mistake. He is talented, but he must be given room to grow.

It should come as no surprise to any long-time reader that I would advocate patience with a youngster while simultaneously conveying a sense of excitement over the possibilities should his talent come to full fruition. Would you accept the following stats from Dembele in his first year in a new system and new country? 48 appearances, 12 goals. I personally think this would be slightly below expectations, but would still be a solid showing for a 20 year old in a new team. Another possibility: 46 appearances, 2 goals. This would be well below anything we’d expect from Dembele, I’m sure, but is he a goalscorer or a midfielder? Do we demand both because of the price tag? What if he returns 15 goals and 8 assists in 41 appearances in his first year? This last one would be magnificent, right? It would more than make up for his cost, especially since we’ll play mind games with ourselves about amortization.

If we’re going to saddle a player with the tag of “Next Great Player,” look no further than Bojan for what can happen before the player is ready to handle such intense pressure. Remember, Bojan came in as the kid who could make it rain goals and when he turned into a productive player at the age of like 11 or whatever he was when he made his debut (he was actually 17), it wasn’t good enough for the expectant crowds. If you’re marked for greatness, being serviceable is a failure.

Those hypothetical stats I quoted about Dembele? Bojan’s from his first year with Barcelona way back in 07-08 and Andres Iniesta’s from when Don Andres was 20 in 2004-05. The third is Neymar’s return his first year. Where do we want to hang our hats? Do we need Balon d’Or performances to make us happy or can we play the long game with an immense talent? Patience is a virtue, they say, but it seems like most cules can’t wait to prove them wrong about that.

Also, it’s probably a good idea to set Dembele’s buyout clause at, say, at least €223m. Just saying.

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in Germany with his wife and daughter.

8 Comments

  1. hereiam
    September 6, 2017

    Please forgive me, but I am terrified when told that a player is good at many position. That’s not a good omen at Barca, especially for someone with a 100m price tag.
    Jack of all trade master of none is the type of player who go to Barca to wilt away. We have pass masters, a poacher specialist, a pivot specialist, and a creator in chief.
    Jack of all trades on the other hand are distinctly average.
    Hopefully Dembele can find something he’s really good at and stick with it.

    • Hristo
      September 7, 2017

      The kid is a rare species. It’s not a matter of whether he will succeed. He will immediately do tremendously well for Barca. He is that trusting in himself.
      I’ve observed him long enough to see the facts.

  2. Jim
    September 6, 2017

    A really interesting look at our new signing, Isaiah. My initial take is that he starts with a whack of goodwill given Neymar’s shenanigans as he left. However, as you say he is largely unproven at the top level or indeed, I’m guessing, against packed defences which sorts the men from the boys, technically. Haven’t seen much of him but those here who have speak highly of him so I’m really looking forward to seeing what he offers. For me, it’s not about adapting quickly, I can wait for that, so much as demonstrating the necessary skills for his position.

    To be honest, Hereiam, the idea of being comfortable in more than one position is a good one for me as long as it’s not the SR ” can play anywhere but don’t expect the top level positional skills ” approach ( don’t mean that as a criticism of him, btw ) . As has often been said, Messi could play at least five or six positions in our side better than the incumbent. Indeed , all truly great players could, imo. I do think that he’ll have to pitch in with a fair number of goals though as not many of our mids seem to be capable of it. If the poacher you refer to is Suarez then it’s maybe a bit of a narrow term considering the number of assists he comes up with every year but I get your point.

    Talking of Messi, I finally managed to catch extended highlights of their game against Venezuela this morning. I can’t watch much SA football and it was just highlights so it is no more than a snapshot but I was shocked at the disorganisation of the Argentinian side. Ok, the goal they lost was bad, (and will have been only too familiar to Barcelona fans given the personnel ! ) but in general there were players not making obvious runs ( forward and defensively) , greedy forwards, lack of composure and even a lack of self preservation in the number of times they didn’t look to see where Messi was as our mob do. They play as if they’re on edge all the time ! What they ARE on the edge of , though, is having to go through a play off which will hamper our season as Messi will have that on his mind and could bring back walking Messi before their games.

    As a footnote, I’ll sneak in that Scotland are still, unbelievably, in with a shout of qualification. After taking just 4 points from our first 12 we’ve now taken 10 out of the last 12. However, we hope to put that optimism to bed as early as the next game . . .

    • seattlefan
      September 6, 2017

      What are they on the edge of? It’s the Argentina fans and press. The reason why Messi retired the first time.
      Several things why I like a 20 year old Dembele better than a 20 year old Neymar. First, I think he has received better coaching in his development. Remember that Neymar was already anointed the Chosen One just in his teens in his native Brazil and could basically do anything he wanted in his club or national team. Can’t remember how many times Neymar held on to the ball too long, stopped play, dribbled too much, didn’t track back enough, etc., his first year or two in Barca. If Dembele does not do that, I would consider it an improvement. Neymar’s associative play really improved his last two years in Barca and if Dembele’s associative play is as good in just his first year that would already be a tremendous achievement.
      Dembele is also a lot more ambidextrous than Neymar. The former reportedly signs papers with both hands. He may be one of those rare truly ambidextrous people. Many footballers develop it just because it makes them more effective, Messi being an example although he still favors his left foot. I also saw Neymar flub one-on-one opportunities on breakaways too many times for a player of such caliber because he was often coming from the left at too extreme an angle. Dembele might not.
      Aside from the numbers on which there are too many different variables to make like for like comparisons I would be looking more at qualitative things like Dembele sticking to the system, his link-up play with Messi, Luis and the mid-field and his tracking back.
      One question mark is that MSN truly had a friendship off the field which did help their on field team work. Ousmane is a lot younger than MS so it’s a question of how he will mesh with them personality wise. Messi and Iniesta work really well together and I don’t think they are close friends off the field so I think Dembele can just be as effective without being part of a famous trio with MS on and off field. Luis was yelling at Deulofeu and I’ve also seen Messi yell at the younger players so it remains to be seen how Dembele will react to it when Luis or Messi yell at him for the inevitable positional and decision making mistakes.

      • Davour
        September 6, 2017

        Let’s hope his decision making is better than Deulofeu’s then! He seems to have the attitude that he is here to learn, which is helpful – he also seems calm and intelligent, though young, so hopefully he will listen and improve, wise enough to listen to his elders (especially when he is the goat…).

        Also, completely agree on the “intangibles” – numbers are useful, but not essential. Isaiah compares him to Iniesta, which surprised me (pleasantly), and we know the illusionista has never been reduced to numbers (at least not by people who have the slightest understanding of football). I just care about him showing he is on the right track. Everything else is a bonus.

        And I don’t think the friendship is important here – but was with the MSN due to the superstar status of all three and the potential rivalry (which still cause trouble, to my mind). Dembele will hang out with Umtiti and Digne! And Messi ad Iniesta often strike me as a lovable pari of veterans who might not be spending time outside the Barca context, but trust each other to death.

      • September 7, 2017

        May I say that I have started really looking forwards to your comments Seattlefan, just like I wait for JIm’s and few others. Your comment on a recent post about the money management was brilliant. Thank you for being here.

        I dont remember seeing Messi yelling at someone who has come from outside La Masia (except for that Villa incident!). But we saw him do that with La Masia youngsters few times. If Messi humbly welcomed two superstars like Suarez and Neymar without any ego, Dembele does not have to worry at all. Am sure both him and Iniesta would nurture him as they too want great players playing with them.

        Thank you Isaiah for this different view point. Didnt know much about him and I would be delighted if he can be nurtured to an Iniesta replacement, rather than a pure forward.

        • Jim
          September 7, 2017

          Thanks, Fotobirajesh.

          Just popped on to say that due to the proliferation of articles over the last week I didn’t get a chance to welcome Diana in the last article and to thank her not just for it but for all the translations she has done over at Grup 14. A great, and, I’m guessing, largely thankless, job. Invaluable for folk like me who have now lost almost all of the Spanish we ever had.
          ( Doesn’t mean I agree with the Samper sentiments, though. 🙂 ).

          A couple of important votes also coming up for both club and country which could lead to troubled times. With regard to the dates for the slips I’m sure it’ll either be as the club says or a legal challenge by the organiser which should sort it. If it just says 14 days in the statutes without mentioning excluding weekends then I’m guessing that’s what it means. On the face of it I’m also not sure it’s reasonable to wait until the complainer sees fit to pop down the road to collect them before starting the countdown but I know little about these workings.

          However, the Catalunyan parliament is also pressing ahead with a unilateral independence vote which will have huge repercussions. Speaking as a veteran of these events, things could well turn very nasty quickly and it could sweep up the club in its wake.

  3. Rami
    September 6, 2017

    Thank you Isaiah for this quite informative article.

    There are critical information everyone needs to know about dembele’s scoring abilities:
    Dembele was the youngest player (18 years of age) to score 12 goals in ligue 1 in more than 30 years, A double figure feat that the likes of theirry henry, Karim benzema, And eden hazard could not achieve at similar age.
    Dembele was also the youngest player in more than a decade to score a hat-trick in ligue 1.

    Eventually, Both of these records were broken by kylian mbappe by slight margin, Only a few months younger than dembele
    Mbappe tallied up 15 goals in ligue 1 in 29 appearances,
    Dembele tallied 12 goals in ligue 1 in 29 appearances.
    So whenever you see someone hyping up Mbappe scoring abilities, Remember that our boy Dembele is nearly or just as good as him in the scoring department, Plus he’s much more creative and versatile than the Mbappe, Which is why he was the better choice of player for Barca.

    Now why dembele didn’t have an impressive scoring record with dortumund?
    First of all, In his own admission, He genuinely likes giving assist to his team-mates more than to actually score goals, In addition his role in dortmund given by tuchel was also more of a creative role than a goal scoring threat
    So i’m confident that if our team needed dembele to be used as a goal-threat, Dembele will deliver……………Hopefully.
    Also, Dembele is good with both feet, But he prefers doing most thing with his left, But prefers scoring with his right, So dembele on the left wing will sure be more of a goal threat.

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