Immature and unprofessional. Habitually late and lacking focus. His diet is poor and he spends too much time playing video games. He’s tactically naïve and he loses the ball. He always loses the ball!
The criticism of Ousmane Dembele – from fans, pundits and even team-mates – has been torrential in recent months. Months, it just so happens, in which the Frenchman has become a double winner with Barcelona and a world champion at international level.
Focus, despite such success, has remained trained on what he isn’t, on what he doesn’t do. But Dembele is still only 21 years old. What he is, is one of the most naturally gifted footballers on the planet; what he does, with increasing regularity, is score and assist vital goals for one of the world’s biggest clubs.
When Ousmane Dembele's 🔥, he's very 🔥! pic.twitter.com/UPQ3Ldipv8
— Sport360° (@Sport360) December 3, 2018
There was a time when the former of those two truths alone would have been enough to earn a young player the grace of patience. No longer, it seems.
Dembele’s career story will forever be tethered to the most bombastic transfer of our time: the record-shattering, market-altering £198m move which took Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2017 – a deal in which Barcelona, owing to the obligatory release clause in the player’s contract, were unwilling participants.
The unprecedented, seismic fee the Qatar-backed Parisians so brazenly stumped up to sign Neymar had a tsunami effect on the transfer market. Player valuations around the globe multiplied instantly as a new high mark, more than double the previous world transfer record, was set.
Suddenly, £40m players were slapped with £70m price tags; stars previously valued in the £70m bracket would now cost upwards of £120m.
Neymar’s soon-to-be PSG cohort Kylian Mbappe and mid-season Barcelona signing Philippe Coutinho quickly entered the latter category, becoming the second- and third-most expensive players in history. Before both, though, came Dembele, hurriedly acquired to fill the Neymar-shaped hole at the Camp Nou.
Barca had been eying Dembele for some time, and would likely have moved for him the following summer. The loss of Neymar, though, hastened their pursuit of the French winger and multiplied his price tag.
Ousmane Dembélé has played only 86 professional matches in his career. If you take his €105m base fee, it makes him worth €1.22m per game.
— Get French Football News (@GFFN) August 25, 2017
Not only had the Neymar deal inflated the market, it also meant that everyone knew precisely the size of the cheque burning a hole in Barcelona’s pocket, acutely aware of their desperation. Borussia Dortmund didn’t want nor need to sell Dembele, who they’d only signed from Rennes a year previously, so it took the player agitating for the move and a fee which could eventually rise to as much as £130m to get the deal done.
A player’s transfer value is, of course, determined by a number of factors, of which current ability level is just one. Things like future potential, marketability, the spending power of the buying club and the willpower of the seller all help determine the often eye-watering, headline-grabbing fees.
But, as with most social media discourse, there is little room for such nuance or context when setting expectation levels and assessing performances. Settling-in periods are a luxury not afforded to the most-prized new arrivals; gratification must be instant.
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Belonging to the same generation of outrageously gifted young French players, comparisons have long been drawn between Dembele and Mbappe. Such juxtaposition doesn’t flatter Dembele at present, with Mbappe an immediate hit at PSG. But that was always likely to be the case: the teenage forward joined a side who enjoy an overwhelming talent gap over their domestic rivals, in a league in which he was already thriving and with little pressure on his place in the line-up.
This isn’t to suggest that all of the criticism levelled at Dembele is unjust. His poor timekeeping is an issue and rightly considered unacceptable. And there is still a tactical naivety to his game, one that is at odds with the uber-organised playing style of Barca coach Ernesto Valverde.
Indeed, the 21-year-old’s Camp Nou unveiling is, in many ways, a fitting metaphor for his first year at the club. Wearing Neymar’s old No.11 shirt, paraded in front of the assembled media and an expectant fan base, Dembele attempted to run through a repertoire of ball-juggling tricks. But the ball would bounce off his shins and roll away when he attempted to flick it into the air, with his bungled attempts to reclaim it only taking him further from the sponsor-emblazoned backdrop.
— Soccer Tv (@SoccerTv_1) August 29, 2017
He can frustrate similarly in competitive action, at times over-elaborating when a slick interchange is required, or appearing to be operating on a slightly different frequency to Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.
But Dembele is cut little slack considering he sustained a serious hamstring injury just half an hour into his first start for Barcelona against Getafe in September of last season. The muscle tear left him sidelined until the new year, so should it really have been a surprise that he seemed out of sync with his attacking colleagues in the weeks following his return?
And throughout there have been signs of better things to come. Increasingly so. In eight starts between February and the close of last season, Dembele directly contributed to nine Barca goals, scoring three and assisting six. Early this term, he scored a thunderous winner in the Super Cup against Sevilla, and has either scored or assisted against such opposition as PSV, Villarreal, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid.
Yet is seems Valverde is only now beginning to trust the enigmatic youngster. As Barcelona’s Champions League hopes fell apart in a dramatic collapse against Roma last season, Valverde left Dembele on the bench until the 85th minute, by which time all momentum had been lost. In the first Clasico of the season at the Camp Nou, even with Messi out injured, Dembele was only a substitute.
With seven goals and four assists so far this season, Dembele is beginning to produce in the volume expected of a Camp Nou attacker. Most impressive, however, is his decisiveness. The Frenchman’s goals in tight encounters have been worth seven La Liga points to Barcelona this term – without which, rather than topping the table, they’d be sixth, level with lesser Catalan lights Espanyol and Girona.
Too many have been too quick to write him off, with some fans and pundits suggesting he isn’t made of Barca stuff, and reports in the Catalan press linking him with an exit as soon as January. Arsenal are said to be interested.
This restlessness is not uniquely confined within the steep walls of the Camp Nou, but rather evidence of a burgeoning ‘now’ culture in football. Special talents such as Dembele deserve a little more patience. It will be rewarded in the end.