The problem with Ousmane Dembele

Mercurial.

Erratic.

Enigmatic.

Wasted transfer.

Sloppy.

A great many adjectives are attached to the player that is Ousmane Dembele, who arrived at FC Barcelona with a massive price tag and even greater expectations, coming as he did right after the departure of Neymar, and one of two purchases with that windfall, the other being Philippe Coutinho, who is a different player with many of the same problems at Barça.

When Dembele suffered a serious injury not that long into his first season, then began a sequence where he couldn’t keep fit, disenchantment with the French talent grew, even to the point where the injuries were seen as his fault. Training, diet, staying up late playing Fortnite, etc. And the legend of Dembele grew. Another surgery, another relapse and then, this season, he was finally fit and training with the club under a new manager in Ronald Koeman, who served notice that if Dembele wanted to play, he would have to shape up. He did, and is now part of the Barça XI.

Yet still. After most matches the talk is of Dembele, no matter what anyone else did. He’s a fascinating player for the unrealized talent that he represents, and what is most often said of Dembele is that he needs to improve. But Dembele has regressed at Barça, a far cry from the dynamic, productive player that he was at Dortmund. Let’s dig a bit into why that’s happened.

When Neymar was at Barça, Luis Enrique gave the Brazilian the keys. With the ball at his feet, he was the dynamic playmaker for one of the most lethal front lines in football history with Messi and Suarez. The three of them were not only all in the box all the time, but could capitalize on the instability that Neymar created with his pace and skill on the ball. As opponents figured out how to wall Neymar off, starving Messi and Suarez, the trophy haul diminished. Valverde arrived and unleashed Neymar again, and a pre-season tour held promise until the Brazilian left for Paris St.-Germain.

In his time at the club, Neymar often bypassed the midfield and that progression, driving the ball up the flank with the other attackers running in behind him. This is also what Dembele did at Dortmund, driving the ball up the pitch with a coterie of fast attackers such as Aubameyang. Dembele getting to the box with the ball at his feet and places to play it was amazing to watch. It was also fun, and most crucially, fast. Dembele himself said that he often doesn’t know what he is going to do until he gets the ball and surveys the situation. The last player Barça had like that was Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez was also a player about whom the same things were said as Dembele. Erratic, loses the ball too much, needs to improve, mercurial, etc.

Sanchez failed for the same reasons Dembele is regressing: tactics.

Neither Dembele nor Sanchez were perfect players. Far from it. Both were dropped into a Barça team that didn’t want to use the very thing that made them high-priced transfers. The best goals Sanchez scored were freelance, when he could become his natural self. Not coincidentally, the same is true of Dembele. Open field, the ball at his feet, creating on the fly. Only at Barça there isn’t anyone who can run with him, so the defense can collapse on him. Even then, he has the capability to make things happen. Usually, it’s frustrating to watch Dembele. Yet most often, he’s a victim of pace, of others rather than his own.

A typical Barça possession is Ter Stegen to a CB, a CB to the FB, then back to Ter Stegen, who feeds Busquets, who takes and caresses, surveying his options. Messi is standing there, Pedri is moving about, so the ball goes to Pedri, he might play a 1-2 with Messi and if that doesn’t work, the ball gets dumped to Dembele, who is looking at 2-3 defenders waiting for him because everybody understands what he can do. Here he has two options: force something, lose the ball and read about how he loses the ball all the time, or make the safe bailout pass to reset the offense. Increasingly he is choosing the latter, and increasingly, people are asking why he doesn’t take on attackers.

Get Dembele the ball in space, and he takes on attackers with a regularity that is a pleasure to watch. Get Dembele the ball in a congested defense with men facing him up and he isn’t going to be able to do very much. The way that Barça plays wasn’t suited for Sanchez, it isn’t suited for Dembele and that same transfer window, Barça bought yet ANOTHER ill-suited player in Coutinho, another one who needs the ball at his feet, needs to drive the attack. But none of them could, because Messi. That isn’t Messi’s fault. He’s the best player in the history of the game, so he will go where he wants. But if you look at the best Dembele and the spaces he occupies, they’re already occupied by the best player in history. So he sets up camp on the right wing, where the ball gets to him late via telegraphed pass, and his options are limited. It isn’t that difficult to recall the “tactical width” of Sanchez, and how muted that made his game.

The best Dembele performance for me this season was when he started a match where Messi wasn’t in the XI. It wasn’t all that difficult to make the correlation, but still people asked things like, “Where has this Dembele been all season?” Well, dicking around on the right wing, getting bailout passes.

To be sure, Dembele has his own issues, but the biggest ones are that he is an extremely talented player, trying to work at the wrong club. Put him at PSG, running with Neymar and Mbappe, or at Manchester City on one of the wings and the story would probably be different. He would still need work, just as he does at Barça. But he would be in a system that better suits his particular set of skills, which is making quick decisions in space with the ball at his feet, then using pace and quickness to execute. Modern football.

Barça didn’t need to spend 140m for Dembele if this is how he was going to be used. It’s a waste. People are saying that he is smarter on the ball, making fewer turnovers, fewer errors. He is. But he’s also like a light slowly going out, with every back or lateral pass. It’s disappointing to watch Dembele for most people because they think “Why isn’t he doing more?” It’s difficult for me to watch Dembele for the same reason it was difficult to watch Alexis Sanchez: muzzled talent. Worst of all is that he offers a skill set this team desperately needs, the ability to shift the field of play dynamically, before the defense has the chance to set for another round of Messi In the Middle.

“Dembele needs to improve.” Yes, he does. Alertness in attack, tracking back with purpose, committing rather than half-assing it when opponents have the ball. And he was scoring goals at Dortmund that he is hitting at the keeper at Barça. All of that has to change. But that all has to start with the team playing in a way that lets him realize more of his potential than is happening right now. That isn’t going to happen at Barça. Dembele isn’t a Neymar-level talent, and will never be. That doesn’t mean that he isn’t good enough to run the team’s attack with the ball at his feet, as he did at Dortmund. You don’t autocross with a Ferrari, even one that needs a tune up.

Is there a way that Dembele could become the player that everyone wants him to be at Barça? Sure, but no manager will do it with Messi on the team, unless you make Messi a 9 so that he’s already up front, waiting for the arrival of Dembele with the ball. Play more of a Luis Enrique style, where the forwards drive play rather than the mids, and it might be four passes per attack instead of 44. You open the throttle and let the fast guys do what they do. Griezmann would also improve in that system. Pedri would thrive, Puig would become a regular, De Jong would sing about the sweet mysteries of life that he’s found, feeling like he’s returned to that Ajax system where he sparkled. But Dembele hasn’t earned the right to be considered in that vein at Barça. He hasn’t played well enough to warrant it in a system that neutralizes his strengths. He occupies a brutal catch-22: He can’t show at his best because of the system, but won’t be considered for more because he hasn’t shown of his best.

It’s a shame to watch it happen again. Alexis Sanchez was sold, and there were rueful shakes of the head at the idea of what he could have been, while rarely acknowledging that such a thing was impossible at Barça. If Messi stays, Barça would be foolish not to sell Dembele. If Messi goes, Barça would be foolish to sell Dembele. Reality is that he will be sold either way, I believe. When that happens it will be with the same regret as when Sanchez was moved on. What might have been, if only.

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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.