Eleven completed dribbles. Out of 15 attempted. Both are the most in La Liga this season.
Ousmane Dembele has been a fascinating story. When he came to Barça in the crazy, suddenly Neymarless summer, a lot of people wondered what all the fuss, all the money was about. At Dortmund they gave him the ball and let him loose. That wasn’t going to happen at Barça. That isn’t the system, so how would he do.
Then came the other stuff — leaked rumors about this or that, oversleeping for trainings, being late and being benched. This came at a time when he wasn’t assimilating like everyone expected, and the talk began: transfer? Rumors swirled about a January move, because a season and a half was long enough.
His coach, Ernesto Valverde, scoffed, said they had it handled. And suddenly, Dembele was integrated into the team psychologically, talking with Pique, looking more comfortable in training, looking like part of the group instead of a scared new kid. It was about that same time that his overall play took off. Suddenly, nobody is talking about a transfer of any kind, much less a January one.
Carles Aleña was a Masia midfield dazzler who had some rough injury luck, and a long road back. Unlike other players, his only goal was to succeed at the only club he has ever known. He worked, came back, was “promoted” this season but spent most of the first half of it with the B team, to regain fitness and timing, his coach said.
“Surrre,” said others, who questioned whether he was really ready for the demands of the Barça first team. He had cameos, isolated blocks of minutes that allowed him some showing off, some entry into the mental files of Barcelona supporters. But minds had to strain to recall the U.S. pre-season tour when, against Real Madrid, he ran that midfield like a boss.
Today, a hard-fought win against a resolute, downright nasty at times Leganes, two players who were doubted both stamped their calling cards in front of the footballing cognoscenti of the Camp Nou, each with a sparkling display that delineated a bright future in blaugrana.
Valverde left Messi out of the starting lineup today, leaving the task of beatdowns to others. Dembele grabbed the reins, dashing, darting, creating, misplaying passes at the times he looked like a young player, dashing off a backheel nutmeg because that was the easiest way to get the ball to a teammate, electrifying the Camp Nou in a display that isn’t even his best.
He worked within system, at times becoming the system, creating that sharp intake of breath when the ball fell to his feet, the anticipation that something amazing is about to happen. He scored a goal that was more difficult than it looked, and with better luck would have had another assist or two in an amazing footballing display that makes it easy to forget that he is still a work in progress.
Dembele is still a player who can dribble an entire team, then misplace the simple 5-yard pass to a streaking teammate, can do a two-footed dribbling breakdown then send the cross halfway up the stands. The promise and execution curves sometimes falter at the concentration nexus. What is different about this Dembele is that he understands more what is required. So today, when he lost a simple pass that he misplayed, he hustled on defense to help force a turnover, whereupon he did the right thing with the ball.
BeIN Sport named him man of the match, an easy decision even despite Messi coming off the bench and essentially accounting for two goals. Just as interesting was the partnership that he formed with Aleña on the right side of the pitch. Even if the Masia wonderkid didn’t have the physical pace of Dembele, he had the mental pace. Mature beyond his years, he played with a contentration and composure, a confort on and off the ball that made him seem like he has been with the first team for years, rather than months.
When people talk about La Masia and how it builds a player, what they mean is more commonly thought of as football IQ. It’s an innate knowledge, honed through years of repetition and countless rondos, a thing that lets a player see where the ball needs to go next, even before the ball arrives at his feet. Aleña has exceptional control, close, in space or on the run, which allows him to do what a Barça midfielder trained in the shadow of the Camp Nou is supposed to do: take the ball, pass the ball.
But these weren’t simple possession passes that Aleña was playing. There were give-gos, diagonals on the move, triangulated edifices of logical destruction. He was industrious but not a workhorse, but rather a facilitator of the type the Barcelona midfield hasn’t seen in a very long time, more conduit than controller or creator. There is beauty in the selflessness of Aleña just as there was elegance in how he knew when to make a dribble (he was 5/8 in dribbles) or when to release a ball into space.
Dembele and Aleña represented two different kinds of hope for Barcelona supporters, the expensive kind, a particular set of skills acquired in the market for dumptruck loads of cash, the kind of player that everyone hopes will develop into something approaching the stratospheric expense, and the homegrown kind, the talent that your club weaned then raised right, who takes his rightful place in the first team and makes the chest puff out just a bit with pride as you watch his display.
Both Dembele and Aleña took masseive steps toward fulfulling their respective promise today, balling like the nucleus of a team that is shaping up to be young and bright. Valverde said that he didn’t plan to take Aleña off, but well, it was Messi time, particularly after a silly conceded goal that was as much a comedy of errors as anything else.
A long ball attempted to catch Alba out of position, successfully. Vermaelen messed up the offside trap by not holding his line as Alba tried to tap the ball to safety, but only succeeded in propelling it more quicly to the feet of the Leganes winger, right as Pique had a “Huh? What?” moment, losing track of the Leganes forward. Bang. 1-1 and squeaky bum time until Messi arrived to calm proceedings.
His first mighty smite of the ball forced a frantic save from the keeper, and Suarez dashed in to tap it home, but not without controversy. His toes poked the ball home before the scrambling, kneeling keeper could grab it. Because keepers are a protected species, everyone assumed the goal would be anulled after VAR took another look, a viewing process aided by a method acting keeper who writhed for minutes, grimaced for minutes more. It was both showmanship and gamesmanship of the highest order, to no avail as the goal was allowed to stand.
Messi used his off foot to emit a laser beam that resulted in the final scoreline, and the easiest thing in the world to do is to think this was a night for Messi, the player tongues should be most wagging about. People who watched, really watched, know better. Dembele and Aleña were the story of the night, a story being written before our eyes in pass after pass, dribble after dribble, attack after attack.
It’s also a story that should excite Barça supporters because as good as they were, both are still hinting at what their respective talents have to offer.