Dembele out of the squad. The news that came on Friday was massive.
It was assumed that the Frenchman would re-enter the squad at the end of his two-match ban after confronting Mateu Lahoz with the reality of his existence. That didn’t happen. Ansu Fati took his place, something that some on the Catalan side of Barça Twitter greeted with approval. Weirdest about him being left out of the squad is that nobody knows why. Punitive? Sucky in training? Disciplinary? No idea. He’s just out, as Dembele’s complex times at FC Barcelona continue.
A journalist on Friday suggested that Barça supporters needed to be patient to see Dembele reach the level that he could reach for the club, and the reactions were predictable, summed up by, “It’s been two years!”
When Eric Abidal, a club legend, came to the club, it took him more than a season to bed in. Thierry Henry, one of the best attackers in the history of the game, came to the club and required more than a season to bed in. So in saying that it’s been two seasons for Dembele, when the first one was essentially lost to injury and the second disrupted for the same reasons, what exactly are we saying, what are we expecting?
Dembele is 22 years old, a willowy attacker who arrived on the top-level scene quickly. Whether Barça should have made the transfer is another question, because the club did. In many ways, psychologically, Dembele is something like a newly promoted B player in that he doesn’t fully understand what is required, what he has to do. In an interview, Arturo Vidal talked about him, saying essentially this, that he has to be fully committed to the game, to live it, dream about it.
Everybody has a standard for Dembele. As children, we wait on tenterhooks for Christmas, to unwrap the presents left for us. Dembele is a 140 million Euro present, one that we can’t wait to open, one that we view with the same salty impatience as dinnertime on Christmas Eve. “What is the MATTER with time?” We need to see what we paid for, want to see the talent recognized in consistent accomplishment. What the hell is taking so long?
When Andre Gomes came to FC Barcelona, it was with a price tag and a bunch of hype, but just as much resistance. He entered the Barça midfield, one of the most difficult places to play in world football, and looked like what he was: a talented player trying to find his footing. But his price tag argued for something different, as one of the things that stratospheric transfer sums has done is to eradicate our understanding of player development.
It went from bad to worse for Gomes as performance nerves, and an acknowledged mental block kicked in. We heard the tales of his balling like a genius in training, none of which matched what we saw, and the enmity built. In tandem with that was the pressure on the player. When will he come good, when will he justify his price tag, when, when, when? Few noticed his better play away from the Camp Nou, and even when Gomes talked in an interview about his struggles, people dismissed it, even scoffing at it. Ploy for attention. Still not living up to his price tag.
Like it or not, we rate players according to price tag. People have a lot more patience with the development of Jean-Clair Todibo because he came on a free. Had he cost what, say, De Ligt cost, how differently would people be looking at his performances? Money has changed the game in so many ways, skewing perspective and distorting reality.
Dembele is a 140 million Euro project, which is the reality of his situation. He not only has to learn what is required of him at the topmost level, but he has to learn it while also carrying the pressure of being the most expensive transfer in club history, of those moments where he does indeed play like his price tag, the burden that brings as people invariably ask, “Why can’t he play like that all the time?”
Because he’s a kid. Like it or not, he’s a kid. He rocketed from Rennes to Dortmund, then Dortmund to Barça, as something of an impulse purchase by a bloke who suddenly came into a bunch of money. His talent was undeniable, even as his pedigree should have given pause. He was always going to take time to become a grownup, never mind to assimilate into one of the most difficult attacks in which to play, one in which a template is set by the best to ever play the game. But we don’t even know who Dembele is, never mind what he can become.
Complicating things for Dembele is the arrival of Frenkie De Jong, who looks to be playing as though he belongs at Barça, even if in reality, he isn’t. He’s assimilating too, in the same way that Arthur had to. He will improve. It just takes time. What kind of a player would Dembele be had he not lost his first season, not had his second disrupted, not overslept once with the firestorm of attention and excess that sparked? No idea, but he will never be that player at FC Barcelona.
It is, to my view, a transfer that Barça should not have made. This isn’t the club for projects. The fans, the entorno are all too demanding, a feeling accelerated by the end of a great career in Messi that is closer than we realize. Anyone who can’t help him win, should get out. But now that the transfer has been made, the question is what are we going to do with it? Gomes transferred to Everton and almost immediately improved. He was free, and played like a man without burdens. Yerry Mina has developed into a quality centerback at Everton, another player whose arrival was greeted with scorn, despite his talent. Dembele has a different problem, even as he has the same problem: We paid for the gift, now where the hell is it?
When Dembele transfers away from Barça, most likely in summer if not January, he will develop, and blossom. The tactical environment won’t be as rigid, the entorno not as hostile. He will, as Gomes did, breathe a sigh of relief and start playing football like he can. And we will ask, “Why couldn’t he do that at Barça,” without realizing that it isn’t just talent and a price tag that dictate what a player can do.