Talent and the best Dembele

There was a fascinating discussion on my Twitter timeline yesterday, related to the observation that even though Kroos and Modric are more “talented,” Rakitic consistently gets the better of them in big-match situations. The topic turned to talent, and definitions of talent. The link is here if anyone is interested in it.

The definition of “talent” will vary according to each evaluator. For me, talent is potential, an innate aptitude for a task. Training hones that talent. Yet the reason the history of sport is filled with talented athletes who have never made it is because talent is only the first part of the equation.

La Masia finds talented tykes and trains them into fully grown assassins. But the reason La Masia is best known for making professionals, rather than Barça first-teamers, is because of the gap between talent and the rest of the stuff. Gai Assulin was talented. More talented than Sergi Roberto. The former is knocking around somewhere, the latter is in the Barça first team.

Andre Gomes is more talented than Paulinho. Yet the former didn’t make the squad for the Classic, while the latter was an integral part of the positive result.

Talent simply means that a player has the necessary skills to perform a task. What makes Messi, or Iniesta so much more than talented begins with training, which hones talent into something that is useful. It’s running, it’s passing, it’s shooting, it’s making complicated actions rote. La Masia doesn’t train players as much as it trains their minds and bodies to have a Pavlovian reaction. Ball=correct decision. Then there are levels of talent. Messi is more talented, meaning his potential for execution of the task of playing football, is higher than many other players. So training Messi means that his talent now has a foundation of rote, right action.

The gap exists in talent vs execution. What makes Messi so extraordinary is that his talent and execution curves match. Messi is a freak because of this attribute. A great many players can see things, even try things. Messi sees them, tries them and executes them. Tiger Woods at his apogee was the same way. He hit shots that no other golfer would consider because he had talent, coupled with an un golferlike body. He was an athlete who was talented at the game of golf, so his potential as a function of that talent was higher. Look at the goal that Messi scored in the Classic. To hit that ball from that distance, with that curve and accuracy is amazing. To do it at that singular moment, under immense pressure, verges on superhuman.

Barça has a great many talented players. Every player on the first team is talented. Some are more talented than others, but talent isn’t the issue. Execution is. Gomes is an immensely talented player who has been gifted with the wrong body and head. If he was Iniesta’s size, he would be a monster. Perhaps. Because he also has a mental fragility that allows him to be a genius in training, with nothing on the line, and a mess in matches, with everything on the line. Execution and execution under pressure are things that define how talent is viewed.

Paulinho’s biggest talent might be understanding exactly what he is, exactly what his role is. He rarely deviates from that role, which makes him a very effective tool. This task is required, and Paulinho is the tool. Gomes can outdribble, outpass, outcontrol, outeverything of footballing value compared to Paulinho. But sometimes, execution trumps talent.

Coaches see talent and develop blind spots. Luis Enrique kept playing Gomes because he saw the talent, saw the potential, kept waiting for it, believing that if he used it and kept using it, this time it would click. It never did. Valverde wasn’t as patient, because Gomes wasn’t his transfer. He saw the same talent, but also saw the execution. Deulofeu is at Watford because of the talent vs execution gap.

Talent excites us, talent also frustrates us. Unfulfilled potential bums us out, particularly because we’re greedy. We want every talented player that our team touches to succeed, to be everything that we want them to be. It explains the rage at failed transfers in so many cases. Hope often turns to anger when it dies.

Oh, Dembele

Speaking of talent and unfulfilled potential, poor Ousmane Dembele, with the best seat in the house for the weekend’s Classic, seat being the operative word. Everybody wonders why he isn’t being used, when the answer is as plain as the noses on our faces. He isn’t going to play regularly for Valverde until he understands the value of ball control and defending. He has the pace and ability to solve problems at both ends of the pitch. But he defends like he is still on page one of the instruction manual, and Valverde values not conceding silly goals too much to risk using Dembele on a regular basis, particularly against a team such as Real Madrid.

He is talented. Crazy talented. So talented that we salivate at the prospect of him charging at opponent back lines, so much so that we forget the prospect of opponents charging at our back line.

Barça is in a unique situation at present, because the first layer of its press is essentially ineffective. Suarez stands there and glowers, and Messi picks his spots. With two players who aren’t devoted to defending, Busquets becomes the first layer of the press. Look at the first Real Madrid goal. Once Kroos got past Busquets, it was off to the races. The best Barça press was with Henry and Eto’o, because they were both quick, fast and indefatigable. It was chaos even before the opponents got to the second layer of the press, with Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. Valverde is not going to regularly play a third attacker who can’t defend, no matter his talent and potential.

Dembele is also continuing the fine tradition of right player, wrong team. You don’t buy a player like Dembele if you’re going to play JDP. Why have him standing around making triangles? You remove the fundamental value of his game. At Dortmund he was a giant pile of “Wheeee!” He didn’t have to defend, didn’t have to do anything except raise hell when he had the ball, then wait to get the ball when he didn’t have it. Suddenly at Barça he has to stand still to receive the exact right pass, already know what to do with the ball when it gets to him, then get ready to do it again. Jurgen Klopp quipped that he was “interested” in Dembele, for good reason. That “heavy metal” football would find him in his element.

Will we ever see the best version of Dembele at Barça? Doubtful. The way the team plays, the way that supporters want the team to play isn’t conducive to seeing that player. Look at what Neymar did to the way the team played, with the blessing of Luis Enrique and the disapproval of a great many supporters. Chaotic at times, and the nexus of attack shifted to the wing. Why? That is where the ball was. People asked, “Where is the midfield?” Neymar had the ball. The rest is academic.

When Dembele is fully fit, the complexity for him will be integration. But he is also going to have to play the game in a way that assures his coach. If Griezmann happens, life will get even more complicated. For now, etch a place for Dembele on the All Potential team.

P.S. I wrote something longer on Dembele’s situation for EIFSoccer.com. Look for it soon.

By Kxevin

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.


  1. With Griezman deal quite possibly done, cause it seems that we will pay his buyout clause, Dembele’s chances to make it to first eleven are lowering.
    Messi, Suarez, Griezman will be preffered front line and Dembele is not a player who will be satisfied waiting on a bench for a chance to play.
    We have to keep in mind that as time goes by, we will see less and less pressand running from Messi and Suarez. Coutinho is far from a player who will accomplish his duties in defense and he will probably be an undisputed starter next season, Rakitic and Sergi are not getting younger and will be much slower…we will see.
    Maybe we will be more attractive with more goals, but i have suspicions regarding pressing up front and defensively.

  2. Speaking of talent and the execution of it, who killed it?
    EVERYONE! That includes Valverde.
    36 down, 2 to go!!!

    1. Yessir. Can those “fans” who do nothing but complain about this team (they are quiet now) please name a team in Europe who has been better than our Barca over the course of the season?


    2. Yes ma’am, actually, but how would you know it… Sorry if I ruined your visualization.

    1. Then I say: sure, we could debate it, but it would have to be a debate. It is debatable. It is not clear-cut. And therefore, we are in the conversation for the team of the season in Europe. And therefore I ask you to think again about the comments you have made in this forum, where you have spewed negativity towards the team you “support.”

      To respond more directly, I ask: tell me about the league that Bayern plays in? Done.

  3. http://www.espn.com/soccer/istanbul-basaksehir/story/3492188/arda-turan-gets-16-game-ban-for-pushing-linesman-during-turkish-super-lig-match

    Meanwhile in Turkey….. aren’t we paying this dude’s salary or something? Correct me if I’m wrong. I think our recent CL malaise has been transfers that didn’t pan out, but that’s football. I am immensely proud of this team because when everyone wrote them down at the beginning of the season. They came back stronger. Mes que en club!!!!

  4. for me its a painful realization I didn’t watch our last match fully but its clear, this boy has the potential to succeed. We can’t loose him because we want to hang onto something that may never come back. Painful.d. We can’t loose him because we want to hang onto something that may never come back. Painful.

  5. Glad that the space is back.

    I really hope all this news about Dembele being loaned out is not true. He has exceptional talent. And that news that even Messi is trying to adapt his game to match the boy is clear signal to our future. Under all this, to loan him would be real lack of patience from the club.

  6. Good to have this space back. But can it really be coincidence that as soon as the site (and hence the abundance of useful advice from us to the club) went down, the unbeaten run ended? I think not!

    Lots of names are going to be thrown around over the next months as candidates for leaving as well as coming to the club. If Valverde can lend some of his levelheadedness to the board, we might not see the most spectacular transfers (we already had three of those the past season with Neymar, Démbele and Coutinho) but transfers which will strengthen and reinforce the team.

  7. Very relived the site is back. Seriously missed it.

    What happened? Hope all is well Kxevin.

  8. Don’t think it would have been anything to do with Kxevin. Looked like an IT issue to me but good to have the place back. I was off for a couple of weeks up in the North of Scotland. Lovely, y’all should try it , so plenty of thoughts reduced to bare statements .

    – great display in the Copa with some of the football I like to see. Right attitude too.

    – loved some of the football against Depor and the sheer guts agains Madrid.

    – rewatched Iniesta’s performances in the last three or four games. Outstanding. Just outstanding. Against Madrid I didn’t see him flagging. He lost the ball once when he miscontrol led it and another twice when he was given a ball with three or four right at his heels. In fact he was exactly what we needed but in the centre of the midfield so we could actually hold onto the ball. No point in runners on as the ball just comes back to you.. However, that was a good night.

    – Not worried about Umtiti’s wobbles over the last couple of months as I’ve never thought he was the finished article. He could become genuinely great but he still needs to learn in the areas of decision making, positioning and in the air. I’m more worried by his recent stalling over a contract. He should take what’s being offered, buckle down and go back to the club when he nails a consistent run at the the end of next season. The outcome of these negotiations will tell me a lot about him.

    – just while we’re on the subject I’ll say it again. Pique is and has been for years the best CB in the world. Don’t care if folks don’t agree. He just is. Has he been made fourth captain yet ?

    And while I’m on a roll what about Suarez ? He has had a huge hand in our last few results – the Copa, Depor and Madrid. Tell me again how he’s past it, can’t score goals, doesn’t contribute anything then have a look at the last few games. Superb goals, unbelievable assists, tremendous touch vision and control. Thing is if you have great control you can still miscontrol anything. Iniesta even did it once this season (!) , but if you don’t have the skills you can’t do these things at all. Btw, the guy is dog tired but his pressing in these games has been great. Some don’t realise that to press when you’re on your own up front requires a lot more running than at DM.

    – Good to see Dembele looking happier but he has a long way to go and if, as Kxevin says, Semedo ever gets his act together offensively which he might well. I’m also gonna say that despite his goals, which have been great, I’ve not been impressed by Coutinho’s contribution to our general play and am looking for more next season. Think he needs a bit more upper body strength and stamina.

    – which brings me to Rakitic. No I’m not impressed although he did have a very good half against Madrid. Still the nearly man for me – nearly follows his man, nearly gets there in time nearly goes past someone ( although his run for the goal in the last game was great). While we play both he and Busi in that position we ain’t gonna be playing the way I like. I know, they’re not doing it for me, just sayin’. We need someone with a bit of pace there.

    – Valverde ? It has been a great season and he has done what he had to given the start we had with Neymar but I still don’t feel I know what’s in his plans for next season. What I don’t want to see is Suarez isolated so much. We are much better when we go forward as a unit. He hasn’t made many mistakes but when he has they’ve been big ones. Not even taking Messi for the last game was ridiculous, as was the CB pairing given what was at stake. We’ll see better what he’s made of next year.

    – since I’m not really winning friends or influencing people here I’m gonna put a word in for Barto. Despite a horrific start with the untimely vote , Neymar and Suarez’ / Dembele’s injury, the club has had a terrific season, in all areas actually. We’ve been prepared to spend big because it was needed, I think it’s clear he’s decided on a clear out of LE’s mistakes, yup the lot of them ( including Denis despite very small cameo) and he has done well with the little touches day to day which have the feel good factor. He has trod the dangerous path regarding the nationalists as well as could have been and his handling of Iniesta’s leaving has been spot on from contract for life to not trying to dissuade him to genuine emotional words on the subject.

    Yeah, all in all things have been good is year. Now, however, I’ve got to decide if I want Messi or Iniesta to win the WC. I’m tempted to say Messi as I don’t want Ramos to get his hands on anything – what a a shit. I’m not worried about the guard of honour but they could’ve done something when Iniesta left the pitch. And Ini has one WC already.. . .

  9. Meant to say, difficult Sunday coming up for us all and it wasn’t helped for me by the videos posted on the club website showing various parts of the club’s farewell to Iniesta. Obvious that the players didn’t expect him to leave this season. I thought Pique sounded shocked as well as disappointed. I found bits of the institutional one a bit awkward with Andres being the humble guy he is but the players attending a compilation in his honour is worth watching and the sight of Xavi, face covered in tears at the end , just did for me.

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