There is precious little to know about Ousmane Dembele. It’s not that he’s simple to understand or that he’s not a complex player, it’s that he’s 20 years old and has hardly had a chance to truly make a mark in world football. He has played for Rennes II, Rennes, and Borussia Dortmund. And all of that since 2014 when he was 17. He has been a darling of the Twitterverse for a while, ever since he was 18 and had been promoted to Rennes’ first team, but he has done very little high-level playing. That is not a knock against him. It is just a fact.
He has 61 appearances under his belt in top flight league play: 29 in Ligue 1 and 32 in the Bundesliga. He also has another 18 appearances in the Champion League (10), German Cup (6), and the German Super Cup (2). He has appeared in another 22 matches in the French fourth tier. He is not a consummate goalscorer, though he has netted 22 goals in the last 2 seasons in all competitions, including 2 in the Champions League.
If you wanted Dembele because you thought he was Neymar, he is not. They both ostensibly play forward, but Neymar is a transcendent talent who has a nose for goal: don’t forget that he had 105 goals in 4 seasons for Barcelona. Dembele may develop into such a player, but he seems more focused on passing, creating space, and playing almost as if he is a French Iniesta. Time will tell if he is truly a great fit, but he appears to provide a variety of options, ducking into the center to play passes between lines. He can dribble, he can pick his head up, he can divert defenders from space intended for another player. These are all things Neymar could do, of course, but Neymar is gone and the search for a different wrinkle in attack has begun.
Stats are hardly everything, of course, but it’s good to put things in perspective too:
2016-17 all games.
Non-penalty goals & assists per 90'
Neymar: 0.84. One every 107min.
Dembele: 0.81. One every 111min. pic.twitter.com/fDNvZbhgvY
— Themis Kessaris (@Kessaris_) August 24, 2017
Neymar also beats out Dembele in the most recent season in defense effort per 90 minutes, according to Squawka.com’s player comparison matrix, but not by a ton. Ousmane isn’t an out-and-out goalscorer, but he is 5 years younger than Neymar. Take Neymar’s stats from 4 years ago (when Neymar had just moved to Europe) and Dembele stacks up much more favorably. Tellingly, Neymar began as a better goalscorer, but Ousmane is a midfielder-cum-forward. He creates space for others, shifts positions to fit the moment’s needs, his eye always on feeding teammates. According to the following graphic, Dembele really does rove all over the place:
Chances created from open play by Dembélé, Messi and Neymar (16/17) pic.twitter.com/q6SClkaXnS
— Erdi (@barcanumbers) August 28, 2017
This is indicative of a much wider skillset than labeling him as a “forward” would otherwise suggest. Still, despite the price tag (€105m! Plus variables!), it is important to remember he is 20 years old and has a long career ahead of him. If Barcelona not only finds the right place for him, but nurtures him–possibly as an Iniesta backup for a few months, then as Iniesta’s replacement–his career could be storied. If they–and by that I mean us, we, me, you–heap pressure on him to perform at the highest level from the get-go, this could all turn out to be a massive financial mistake. He is talented, but he must be given room to grow.
It should come as no surprise to any long-time reader that I would advocate patience with a youngster while simultaneously conveying a sense of excitement over the possibilities should his talent come to full fruition. Would you accept the following stats from Dembele in his first year in a new system and new country? 48 appearances, 12 goals. I personally think this would be slightly below expectations, but would still be a solid showing for a 20 year old in a new team. Another possibility: 46 appearances, 2 goals. This would be well below anything we’d expect from Dembele, I’m sure, but is he a goalscorer or a midfielder? Do we demand both because of the price tag? What if he returns 15 goals and 8 assists in 41 appearances in his first year? This last one would be magnificent, right? It would more than make up for his cost, especially since we’ll play mind games with ourselves about amortization.
If we’re going to saddle a player with the tag of “Next Great Player,” look no further than Bojan for what can happen before the player is ready to handle such intense pressure. Remember, Bojan came in as the kid who could make it rain goals and when he turned into a productive player at the age of like 11 or whatever he was when he made his debut (he was actually 17), it wasn’t good enough for the expectant crowds. If you’re marked for greatness, being serviceable is a failure.
Those hypothetical stats I quoted about Dembele? Bojan’s from his first year with Barcelona way back in 07-08 and Andres Iniesta’s from when Don Andres was 20 in 2004-05. The third is Neymar’s return his first year. Where do we want to hang our hats? Do we need Balon d’Or performances to make us happy or can we play the long game with an immense talent? Patience is a virtue, they say, but it seems like most cules can’t wait to prove them wrong about that.
Also, it’s probably a good idea to set Dembele’s buyout clause at, say, at least €223m. Just saying.