Dembele, Barça and the idea of “football IQ”

Thinking back to the days of Alex Song, the most often-heard negative comment about him usually featured the word “positioning,” a nebulous concept that often presumed the person using it knew what was being asked of him. “He’s terrible with positioning. Waste of money.”

We see other phrases and terms such as that used about various players. With Ousmane Dembele it’s “football IQ,” or the variants about needing to become “smarter” about the game, and related things. It’s worth digging into as a concept and a notion, but also how we do or don’t adapt our thinking to different players, their skill sets and abilities.

And when we think of football IQ, is it pure intelligence, is it problem solving, is it a tactical construct, or all of those things combined? FC Barcelona has been blessed with an exceptional number of players who are gifted, players who we would say have genius-level football IQs. Xavi, Iniesta, Guardiola, Cruijff, Messi, Busquets. These players seem to have already played the game in their heads, and know what to do even before the ball gets to them. Pairing them with players not at gifted in that regard is almost weird. Players such as Luis Suarez or the great Flippo Inzaghi who spend entire careers offside, always made me wonder how they think about the game. A high-IQ type knows what to do, and is rarely offside. Think about how often Messi is offside. That isn’t just a consequence of how he plays the game. A more reactive type thinks like, “Let me figure this out … oh, crap!” and the flag comes up.

When Alexis Sanchez was at Barça, he was never going to work because he’s another more reactive type of player, like Dembele, where they don’t really start to think until the ball is at their feet. From then on they evince a different kind of genius, in problem solving. Consider the small list of players who have the on-the-fly thinking ability to score a goal like the memorable Sanchez chip against Real Madrid. Nobody knew what the hell he was going to do, maybe not even him, until he did it. “He’s going to … dammit, why is he stopping that run, he can dribble … OH!”

Another, more recent example is the Dembele assist to Pedri. That was a classic low IQ, high problem solving kind of play, if you want to limit the two ideas in that way. The only other player on the pitch who could have made a similar play is Messi, which is kinda crazy to consider. But Messi is also a special case, a player gifted with not only high football IQ but genius-level problem solving. And he also has the physical gifts to execute. Iniesta had two of the three, high IQ, amazing problem solving but not the physical gifts. If Iniesta had a catapult of a left foot like Messi, the game would have just declared him illegal.

FC Barcelona as an entity, meaning structure, supporters, entorno, etc, values high football IQ. La Masia trains it. We always marvel as some pint-sized wonder takes a pass, moves it on and always seems to know what to do, where to be. Puig is a high IQ player, trained at La Masia. So is Ansu Fati. It would have been interesting to see how Fati might have developed outside La Masia, how he might approach the game. Football IQ can be learned, but it has to start early. Taking a 20-yaer-old and working to instill him with football IQ is going to be a complex task. As talented as Gerard Deulofeu and Adama Traore are, they aren’t high-IQ players, but they are amazing problem solvers.

Dembele is a problem solver. Problem solvers are often also improvisers, of necessity. A high IQ player will take a pass and, fronted by a pair of defenders, already know that the winger is making a run, the forward is making space by getting inside the defender. They have a photo of what’s going on, and will release the right pass to the right person. A problem solver in the same situation thinks, “How am I going to beat these two defenders, and score a golazo?” Sometimes it works, most times they lose the ball, miss the shot or do something else to make us clap our hands to our heads. Problem solvers are, more often than not, also physically gifted.

Koeman is the first Barça coach to have Dembele as a player and say, “He loses balls, but that’s part of his game.” It’s a acknowledgement of the kind of player that he is, in his essence. The runner-up to “football IQ” with Dembele is “he loses the ball all the time.” Well, not all of the time, but yeah. You don’t buy a player like Dembele to have him pass the ball back to the midfielder. Anybody can do that. Is football IQ knowing when to pass back to the midfielder and when to make the run? That’s interesting to consider, especially as a part of instinct.

When we see Messi make a run at four defenders, with open wingers to the left and right of him, and take a shot or get dispossessed, usually we say, “Man! Almost!” Problem solvers always think they are the best person to solve the problem. They’re high-risk people. Messi is probably thinking, “If that third defender falls for the fake and the fourth moves to cover … ” When neither defender does that, the risk doesn’t come off. Okay.

Barça has a problem with slow play this season, because it has a lot of geniuses, but not a lot of problem solvers. At a baser level it has thinkers rather than doers. At one point during the Champions League opener, a loose ball came to Fati. He tried to pass it to an open player. That is such a high-IQ moment. La Masia trains its players to seek the best option. A player at the goal mouth is a better option than a sharply angled shot. Suarez would have taken the shot. Dembele would have taken the shot. Coutinho would sure as hell have taken the shot. Messi would have buried it.

Note also the lovely goal that Fati scored, a high-risk shot that came off. He took that shot because he was the only, best option. The pass was for him, so it was up to him to know what to do with the ball. He did the right thing. Fati is another of those rarities, a high-IQ player with a great problem solving ability. He is a marvel, and a truly special player. Being able to convert from thinker to doer and have the physical capability to execute is exceptional.

The problem with how people think of Dembele is that they don’t acknowledge what he is. Should Barça have spent 140m for a problem solver? Well, yeah. But only if you put that problem solver in a position to work stuff out with as little risk as possible. Dembele should be fined every time he touches the ball near the center line. If he loses it, it can only mean doom. But whenver Dembele takes a pass, surveys the options and slides it back to a safe place, he rarely gets credit for doing the right thing. And he does that a lot more than he used to, as he learns to value possession more. But Dembele is never going to be a high-IQ player in the way we like to think of them. It’s early days, but Pedri looks to be another genius-level football IQ player. Just as problem solvers are so often physically gifted, high-IQ players tend to not be. High-IQ players are also patient, where problem solvers are like, “Let’s do this!”

Ronaldinho was capable of both, but he was mostly a problem solver. I have the ball. Now what? He had a great football IQ, but problem solving combined with physical capabilities to make us think his football IQ was (probably) higher than it was. The reason you don’t see many butt pass assists is that there aren’t any more Ronaldinhos. Problem solvers are also very creative. They’re also fine with failure, because no risk, no reward. Risk management is another aspect of high-IQ vs problem solvers. Carles Alenya is a high-IQ player. He would take a ball in midfield and always, as reliable as a sunrise, make the safe pass. It’s what he does. Same with Puig. Dembele? Not so much. The error is in equating that with him being “dumb” at football. Those kinds of players just don’t think of the game in the same way.

If I had Adama Traore on my team, I would fine everybody who didn’t run as hard as they could for the front of goal when he started a run. Because he is going to get the ball in there. So be ready. Every time Dembele gets the ball in the attacking end, Koeman should fine anyone who doesn’t get their ass in the box. Because problem solvers aren’t selfish. If Dembele can make the pass, he will. If you leave him on the wing with two defenders to beat and nobody in the box, he’s going to try to beat those defenders. That’s his job, but that’s also his instinct.

A player not having a high football IQ isn’t a bad thing, even though we often think of it in that way, rather than considering their other attributes and how they fit into a team’s overall context. A favorite Twitter follow, @TacticoModerno, had this to say about Dembele vs Trincao, but it also elquently sums up thinkers vs doers:

Trincão is someone you want when we’re playing against more organized opposition, Dembele is someone you want in more open games against opposition that will “come at us”. This match is the perfect display of this.

First half, Ferencvarosi were deep and organized > Trincão’s calmness in tight spaces & associative play was more useful.

Second half, they had a highline & played more on the front foot > Dembele’s pace & directness was more useful.

It won’t stop, but we should reconsider the notion of “football IQ” as a brickbat to bash Dembele, and other players like him. It’s taking what we want to see and laying that template over reality, rather than looking at how something is, and assessing the contextual rightness of that. Dembele will probably never be a nailed-on starter at Barça. But if he can keep fit, he will, for as long as he’s here, be a memorable talent. How we view that is on us.

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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.