At long last, it’s Dembele’s first season

There are some of you old-timers from when this blog was The Offside/Barcelona, that might recall my THFC, the Thierry Henry Fairness Committee. It started because the French forward wasn’t getting credit, to my view, for all the things that he did when he wasn’t scoring key goals for Barça.

You won’t see one for Ousmane Dembele, but my feeling is that the way he is being treated by too much of the Barça fanbase and entorno is ugly, petty and at times, petulant. There is nothing that football hates more than being wrong. But in fact there is one thing: when a disliked player proves people wrong. Dembele has gone from “Get him healthy and sell him, look at how Trincao dribbles,” to having convinced Koeman to make him part of the XI. He played every minute of the SuperCopa semi that went to penalties, and stroked home a key penalty shot.

Since getting fit and learning to trust his body again, Dembele has been the one thing that this Barça team has missed, not only since Fati went down with his torn meniscus, but even before, and something the team hasn’t had since Neymar left. He’s a player who can take the ball from outside his own box, and possesses enough pace and trickery to not only lead a break, but be his own break. He’s dynamic and unpredictable, a two-footed player who has also learned the necessary footballing introspection to play in this Barça team. He seems to be growing by the match.

Yet that isn’t how he was treated, nor is it how he is being treated now. There are still people who won’t have anything to say until he errs. He can lead breaks, create danger and chances, make key passes, and silence. The first mishit pass and it’s “See? Dembele really needs to fix up. This is what I mean.”

Catalan media outlets presented a picture of him as this lazy, disrespectful malingerer and supporters picked up on that. The worst part is how the perception became that his injuries were somehow his own fault. “He was up late, playing Fortnite, and that’s why his hamstring ruptured,” or “He never gets to training on time, so he isn’t fit enough,” or “Diet,” or “Professionalism,” something even said by a player sent home from his national team before a key match in an international tournament for being drunk.

There is, on the part of many, a weird desire to see Dembele fail, because we need to be right. He picked a minor hamstring injury. Everyone at the club said it was minor and still, people were like, “Uh, oh … I knew it.”

And it’s more than the difficulty we have with fully trusting oft-injured players, especially good ones. They come back, sparkle and we live in fear of the next injury. It isn’t that with Dembele. It’s more needing that next injury so that mistrust of him is justified, something that people can nod sagely about, saying. “See?” It’s wrong, and would be shameful if the people doing it had shame.

Dembele came to Barça with a 140m price tag on his head. At the time, people considered it an “opportunity cost,” that 140m was in fact cheap for a player who, if he reached his potential, would be 200m the way the market was going. Then he blew out his hamstring, had surgery, rehabbed, returned, had other injuries, blew out the hammy again, had surgery, returned, blew out the hammy in a return to training. Nobody knew how the oft-repaired Dembele would be this time, and at the beginning, he played like a player who doesn’t trust his body, and why would he? The thing let him down countless times, so why would this time be any different.

Then, gradually, we began to see it. The full-effort accelerations, the tracking back to defend, the leaping and stretching for balls, the play of an athlete beginning to trust his body and then to believe in it. His outings since returning from his minor hamstring injury have found him in Dortmund form. Some of us thought that the minor injury was just what he needed, to understand that he could be a regular player and have a regular, two-week hammy strain that didn’t involve anguish and surgery. It seems to be proving to be thus.

In reality, this is Dembele’s first season. His first two were ravaged by injury, disjointed things plagued by spotty form. This is the first season in which he has played like the player he was on first arrival, before the first serious injury. And it’s wonderful to see. Against La Real, there were moments of breathtaking acceleration as he darted for the end line. Even when a defender knew and had a head start, Dembele still got there first. He’s a forward who can make near post runs away from being an assist machine. Suarez made a living off that when Neymar was in his pomp. Braithwaite isn’t that kind of player, and never will be, which is a shame.

For now, Dembele looks like he’s growing with every game because he is. He trusts his body again. Now that he can play without fear, he can play, can adapt, can learn to do the things that seemed so difficult for him now. It’s paying off for him, his manager and his team. All I can be is happy for him. He has the potential to be one of the best players in world football, a match-changer from either side of the pitch, and with either foot, a player for whom 140m would seem a bargain. All we have to do, in a sport that asks “What have you done for me lately,” is stop judging Dembele by what happened in the past.

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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.