Dembele, and how to judge a player with SO much talent

We all know someone like Ousmane Dembélé, someone who when we talk about them we say, “They have so much potential.” We say it without even understanding what we’re saying and how, the weight of the words and what they carry for us and our expectations of someone, just as much as for that person.

Maybe that person we knew is an amazing athlete, a really smart person or a killer code writer. And we sigh in anticipation at what that genius might do, just as we chafe when talent falls short of our expectation. Genius wasted. There is no purer embodiment of potential and what it means, to reach it and fall short of it, than sport.

In the second minute of the recent Napoli friendly in Michigan, Griezmann smacked a diagonal pass to Dembélé that was just out of reach. Everyone’s first thought was almost certainly, “See? That’s what I mean, Why didn’t he run harder?”

That is Dembélé and his perception, in a nutshell. If you rewind the DVR to be sure, that same moment is revealing. He would have needed a telepathic bond with Griezmann, or rockets in his shoes. That so many of us expected both at the same time says more about us than it does him.

We want the team that we support to succeed, we want the players on that team to be their best, to give of their best. That “best” is something that we define, rather than the people who in fact do, coaches, teammates, technical directors. For us folks sitting in the cheap seats, “best” is malleable. Goals, playing the right way, taking care of the ball, passing perfection, being connected wiith teammates. It depends on what we want to see. But when a player as talented as Dembélé comes along, the expectation, the perception of what we see, also changes.

In the same couple of minutes of play in the Napoli match, Jordi Alba fumbled a ball, turned it over, then fouled. Dembélé tracked back on defense, intercepted a pass then controlled the ball with a mid-air backheel that also allowed him to evade the defender, flicked it to a teammate, then accelerated. He moved into space to take the pass off the 1-2, then fed a precisely weighted ball for his teammate to run onto. Then his touch was too heavy on the return pass, and the defense cleared it. Corner kick.

Many again almost certainly thought, “He has to work on his first touch. That was a goal lost.” But my eyes were still bugged out from the interception/midair juggle. Dembélé’s next touch on the ball was too hard. He recovered, fed Frenkie De Jong. In that same sequence, Alba fed a poor pass to Suarez, who fumbled it away.

After the match, the talk was of two players, essentially: De Jong and his anointing and Dembélé, who once again failed to meet expectations as a great many assessments said that he had a bad match. He misplayed a bad ball that led to an Athletic Club break in the season-opening loss, but wasn’t the possession-gifting disaster many assessments had him as. Just what are expectations for the willowy Frenchman from us, and are they fair?

Suarez was Suarez. Two goals amid a miasma of well-aged inadequacy against Napoli, as well as offsides, lost balls, misplayed passes, even a hospital ball for the golden child, Frenkie de Jong. He missed an open net that proved decisive against Athletic Club.

Griezmann pranged balls hither and yon against Napoli, had a howler of a miss before scoring his first goal for the colors, yet not playing all that well. Against Athletic Club he strolled about like a man on holiday.

Against Napoli, Dembélé was involved in almost everything dangerous, playing precise 1-2s in traffic to set teammates free, chasing back on defense with conviction as opposed to the desultory wave of last season, yielding a heat map that spanned endline to endline.

When Thierry Henry was at Barça, he sparked debate about his output versus his promise. He showed up already a legend, after all. We expected bags of goals from him. His coach, Pep Guardiola, needed something different. So Henry ran and worked like a fiend, putting in a full-pitch shift that only got him pilloried by people who were expecting one thing from him. “Where are my bags of goals,” supporters wondered as his coach strewed rose petals at Henry’s feet for playing the exact kind of game the team needed to be successful.

Our expectations from Dembélé are as massive as he is mercurial. In one passage of play, he assessed, moved to make the defensive interception and fed the midfield. On his very next pass, to Alba, Dembélé knocked it right to a Napoli defender. Why do we remember misplaced passes, lost balls, more acutely than the moments of wonder he routinely generates.

Standards are weird. So is what we choose to remember about a player’s performance. Dembélé has three problems of price tag, expectation and talent. His talent is astonishing. He is a player who has everything. He’s even two-footed. It is that talent that makes us evaluate what he does as a fulfillment of that potential rather than looking at the player, what he has done and is doing. The player that he is. He is 22, and Twitter sages refer to him as “the boy,” the perpetual young talent who is perpetually destined to leave us wanting, to never reach his potential. Genius and failure.

But that is his game. Every player is capable of genius and frustration from play to play. Dembélé’s moments are exceptionally dynamic. You might get a golazo, or a fumbled pass to the opposition. He frustrates because he is so good, because he is everywhere, has the pace to be everywhere. But the expectation obscures the view of his growth. This season so far, he’s more confident, more involved, more thoughtful, less inclined to do dumb stuff with the ball. Still, we focus on the things he messes up, and point those things out with an almost glee, laying out the many, many problems with his game. Our vaporware is flawed. It overhit that pass, it lost the ball.

When Dembélé makes a dazzling run and scores a golazo we say, “Now, if he can play like that all the time … ” Who can? Of Suarez, we expect fumbling, bumbling, rage and a couple of goals. That is his game. What should we expect from Dembélé, who many even laid blame for the Anfield elimination on because he missed that fourth goal at Camp Nou, then had the nerve to get injured.

That dynamic genius is his standard. In more than two decades watching football, my mind strains to think of a more talented player. And that defines my expectations for him, rightly or wrongly. He gets the ball and we hold our breath. He could do anything. His Champions League goal against Tottenham. His various match-winning golazos. He has a template of accomplishment that should make us more patient, even as his talent makes us less patient. We want the fully developed software right now.

Barcelona has a way of playing, a style. It’s precision, passing and movement, it’s an intricate dance that inches its way up the pitch, creativity defined by knowing what to do with the ball even before it arrives. That system struggles with players who don’t really know what to do until the ball arrives. Coutinho, one of those players, is at Bayern Munich now.

Alexis Sanchez was another confounding genius who never really fit it at Barcelona because he needed the ball to think, his mind filled with butterflies and lightning bolts as he started to run. Compare that with a Barcelona stalwart such as Busquets, who takes the ball and dispatches it almost immediately in the manner of a telepath, or a footballing seer. Systems, a manner of play such as that, struggle with a creative player, even as it needs that type of player so that it doesn’t become predictable. A healthy dose of “Wheeeee!” is required, even as we almost resent that quality.

Dembélé is as he is. He will continue to develop as a player, but will forever be amazing and frustrating in the same minute. How, then, do we define what we expect from him, when we know how he is? Maybe we don’t. Maybe we understand what he is and how he is. Maybe we, instead of expecting magic every time he touches the ball, wait to see what happens and understand that he is a player working to fit into the most difficult club in football to fit into and look at what he does, rather than what we want him to do, what his talent, for us, dictates he should be able to do.

Talent gives us hope. It’s unavoidable. “Man, look at his control, his pace. How did he see that shooting angle?” We think of him doing that all the time. When he entered the first round of the two-legged tie with Napoli and set the pitch on fire for the entire second half, people said, “Now that is how Dembélé should play all the time.” Talent makes us less capable of understanding being human. Maximize that potential, or you’re a failure.

The times he ran from endline to endline, the only attacker to do that, were part of Dembélé 2.0, the increased involvement, the improved reading of the match. Yet golazos define Suarez, while slack giveaways define Dembélé. Why not the smart runs he makes, or how quickly shots explode off his feet? Instead, he’s considered a mess, a giveaway waiting to happen, who isn’t progressing in the way we expect. So many are ready, already, to write him off. “It’s his third season. He should be better.”

His first season was a write-off, his second disjointed due to the injuries. This is his third season, but it still feels like he’s a new transfer, such has been his inconsistent presence in the side. We reduce him to things that we believe we should see, and discuss what he shouldn’t do.

Messi is one of the rare, astonishingly talented players who reached his potential. When that kid came bounding onto the pitch, it was with enough hype to light up a mid-sized city. He realized every bit of it, becoming the best player the game has ever seen, a human cheat code.

But football is littered with players, massive talents who didn’t make it fully, who never met their awesome potential. Adriano, Balotelli, Bendtner, Reus, you can make a huge list of such talents, the all-potential team, and look at what football does with them, how it manages (or doesn’t manage) its expectations in the face of such talent. We consider them a waste, potential unfulfilled. Their grading curve is different.

Dembélé is one of those players. It’s easy to see the signs building that this is his last season in Barcelona, that he will be sold on to be on some other club’s all-potential team. His value will always be high, because of talent and expectation, that technical director’s dream of being the one to harness all of that remarkable potential.

Meanwhile, we watch, but don’t see. His assist to Suarez for the third goal against Napoli was so simple, and so smart. Last season in the same situation, Dembélé receives that pass from Alenya, takes on or tries to outrun the three defenders and loses the ball. This year he sees the pitch, the Suarez run, drifts toward the sideline to create a passing angle and space for Suarez to run into, then lays in a perfectly weighted ball. Goal.

“That is what he should have done. It’s the stuff he does wrong that messes that up.” But that is Ousmane Dembélé, a player whose middle name should be Actually, as in “Actually, he still had a bad match, because … “

It isn’t that he is incapable of having bad matches, but rather how we look at and evaluate the totality of what he does. His dominant second half against as a sub against Napoli was the same amount of genius in a compressed time period. Look at his goal in the second leg, an irony-laden fourth tally in a two-legged tie. It’s the way he shaped his body, the touch and dart that crrated the shooting soace and the cross-body blast that finished the trick. Wow. Don’t we have a right to expect that all the time?

Great talent frustrates us when it doesn’t always make magic, because so few of us have it, understand what a world of possibilities feels like. Dembélé takes a pass and has a crazy array of options. Too often for so many of us, he chooses wrong, lets us and his talent down. Yes, some of it is envy. We want to be that good at something, at anything, and the fully realized potential becomes what we evaluate, rather than the reality of a remarkable talent, and what it can do.

“Man, don’t you wish that talking dog had something more interesting to say? Just ‘Blablabla, legs and how trees smell.’ Boooring!”

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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.