Ousmane Dembélé will do well if one scuffed shot doesn’t end up as his Barcelona legacy. In the 97th minute of the Champions League semi-final first leg at the Camp Nou, the Frenchman led a break following a Liverpool corner, his pace carrying the ball up the pitch in a flash. Lionel Messi was with him, as was Gerard Pique. He chose Messi and all three retreating defenders were drawn to the great man. Messi cut the ball between them back to Dembélé fifteen yards out. Maybe Pique was a distraction but even so Dembélé, a World Cup winner and subject of a massive transfer fee, was unmarked with just the keeper to beat. If he had made it 4-0 surely the place in the final was Barca’s. Instead his first time, left-footed effort scuffed into the ground and bounced up for Alisson Becker to make an easy save. It was the last kick of the game. Dembélé’s carelessness had left the door ajar for Barca’s subsequent Anfield humiliation. He wasn’t at the second leg – a muscle injury ruled him out.
Can we skip over the part in which we debate whether Dembélé has been worth the €105m Barcelona paid, let alone any of the extra €40m they might yet have to find? I don’t know anyone who says otherwise. The real question is: what do Barcelona do about a player so flaky and yet so expensively acquired?
He is going nowhere in this transfer window – except perhaps back to France to visit his mother. If it seems harsh to criticise a young man for that, well bad luck. Part of a footballer’s job is to look after his body. He left San Mames after Barca’s opening day defeat without telling the club’s medics that he had a problem. With his history of injuries it was negligent in the extreme and Barca were rightly furious.
If we believe his former chef then the Frenchman’s lifestyle hasn’t helped his football career. He doesn’t drink alcohol but according to his ex-employee Michael Naya, Dembélé has a ‘messy life’ and ‘doesn’t respect the rest periods at all.’ Barcelona must have feared the worst when their Neymar replacement when down with a muscle injury just 27 minutes into his full debut against Getafe. He didn’t reappear until January and was eased in, playing his first full 90 minutes for Barca in February, before having what some consider to be his best match for the club against Chelsea in March. Unfortunately it wasn’t the dawn of anything. Seven similar injuries in two years saw to that.
A lesson we can all learn is never to make big financial decisions while you’re smarting from being dumped. In summer of 2017 Neymar had declared he was off to PSG to win both the Champions League and the Ballon d’Or and that a €222m release clause wasn’t going to stop him. Barca were bruised, having watched Real Madrid become Spanish and European champions. Barca were being bossed and €222m burns a big hole in the pocket of a humiliated giant. They were quickly onto Liverpool keen to overpay for Philippe Coutinho. Liverpool smelt the desperation and held out for more.
So Dembélé was needed to save face as much as to fill Neymar’s number 11 jersey. Never mind that he was a kid with one season’s top flight experience in France with Rennes that had been followed by a rancorous transfer to Dortmund. A year later the Germans put up suspiciously little resistance and accepted a fee that could end up being ten times what they had paid out a year earlier. To be fair to Barca, Dembélé had only missed ten days through injury, a hip flexor problem, and had appeared in 49 games in his one season in Germany. Reports suggested other rich clubs had watched him closely but when Barca plunged in they somehow managed to get into a bidding war with themselves.
Dembélé has been a bad signing but it doesn’t mean he’s a bad player. His speed adds an extra dimension to Barca’s front line and when he’s on his game he can beat players with ease. He scored a fine goal against Chelsea in that Champions League match and a better one against Tottenham last season, one of 14 in all competitions. There is something there but Barca need him to develop from a player suited to YouTube compilations into one who can significantly contribute to a 60-match trophy-winning season. When he completed the 90 minutes against Athletic last weekend it was for only the seventh time in a Barca shirt.
He was awful at San Mames. His first involvement was a stray pass that went straight to Iñaki Williams who had a chance to score. Dembélé’s carelessness defined his performance more than any danger he posed to the Basque side’s defence. His lack of attention to detail can be infuriating. At times his first touch is amateurish. He looks to me like a young man struggling to deal with pressure – the nonchalance not that of someone who doesn’t care but of a player who feels the game should come easily and quickly loses confidence when it doesn’t. He has to find a way to turn in 8 out of 10 performances when the magic isn’t sparking.
Barca have an investment to protect. Dembélé’s agent claims there are clubs who want him. Maybe so, but at what price? Thislatest injury is unfortunately timed. With Luis Suarez out and Messi doubtful it could have been the time for Dembélé to assume responsibility and prove he is worthy of being a €100m star and a Barca player. I saw one suggestion that he takes up yoga – that might be the most sensible idea yet. In the days of Financial Fair Play, not even the biggest clubs can simply write off such an investment. Ernesto Valverde has shown patience with Dembélé but does he have the man-management and tactical nous that has seen Pep Guardiola help Raheem Sterling find a key role in his team and a level of consistency that had seemed beyond him?
Neymar’s arrival or otherwise is a big factor. If Dembélé is not going to be on the pitch regularly when everyone is fit then his value will plummet. For Barca to get the best out of their €100m man they need him playing. Hopefully Dembélé’s disgruntled chef is right. Lifestyles can change but if his body simply isn’t up to the challenge of sprinting that fast that often that is fundamental. It is a huge call for the club’s medical staff.
Barca need a cool head. They have to look at Dembélé and answer three questions: will he ever make the necessary sacrifices, can his game mature, and is his body is robust enough? Otherwise he will go down in history as an ill-judged panic buy defined by his lackadaisical miss against Liverpool and Barca will have to hope he’s fit enough in January for them to cut their losses.