FC Barcelona signed Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund in the aftermath of a disappointing final season under current Spanish national team manager Luis Enrique, where Barcelona were knocked out of the Champions League for the second year in a row and were only able to avoid going trophyless by claiming the Copa Del Rey having lost the La Liga title to eternal rivals Real Madrid. the Asturian was eventually replaced by former Athletic Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde, who set about regaining Barcelona’s domestic crown though he also stumbled at the quarter-final hurdle in ignominious fashion.
After that disastrous season, Barcelona were hit with another bombshell: Neymar left. And to add insult to injury, he left to join Paris Saint Germain, the same club on the end of the famous ‘remontada’ come back in the Champions League. This was bad news, Barcelona’s vaunted ‘MSN’ attacking trident had been broken up and Barcelona were staring into the abyss of another Tata Martino-esque season – enter Ousmane Dembele.
Having signed from Borussia Dortmund as Barcelona’s record signing, Dembele had a lot of (unrealistic) expectations hanging on his young shoulders as Barcelona fans saw in him the promise of excitement and the chance to move on from the Neymar saga; unfortunately, football at the top level is complicated and things didn’t go quite as planned.
Injuries blighted his first season at the club, robbing him first of pre-season experience with his new teammates and then taking out huge chunks of his time in the first team last season, meaning that he only played thirteen La Liga matches last season. The pre-season injury was especially damaging as it forced Valverde to develop his game model for the season without him. In the event, Valverde went for a 4 – 4 – 2 system with Paulinho as the added midfielder in the system, even when Dembele was fit, He found himself overlooked a lot of times especially in the big matches and consequently endured a frustrating debut season for the eventual La Liga winners
Dembele did not fare much better in the Champions League even though that was where he got his first goal for the club against Chelsea which turned out to be his only goal in the competition as Barcelona crashed out ignominiously in the quarter-finals, for the third season in a row.
Dembele’s struggles were not just on account of injuries, though they did play a big part in it, Ernesto Valverde was forced to develop his game model without a true winger and was able to hit upon a settled system before Dembele was again and so in this tactical system, there was no place for Dembele as Valverde generally preferred to Paulinho as the extra midfielder in a 4 – 4 – 2 rather than Dembele.
Dembele’s struggles last season prompted a lot of criticism from fans and media alike especially on social media, with a lot of people saying that he had not lived up to the levels demanded by his price tag. some even went so far as to label him a “flop” after just his first season; those people didn’t consider that Dembele is still a very young player (20 years at the time), who was playing in what was just the third professional season of his career; each of which had been spent at a different club and he now found himself at the biggest club in the world. The logic of such complaints was clear: if a club is going to pay 100 million pounds plus for a player, then that player should [produce more than a meagre one goal and five assists. The rumours were so loud that there was talk of selling Dembele or at least sending him out on a season-long loan to Arsenal in the summer and the arrival of Malcolm only served to intensify those rumours.
This season, Dembele looks like a man risen from the dead, Valverde has gone about implementing a new tactical system at Barcelona, a 4 – 3 – 3 that sometimes becomes a 4 – 2 – 3 – 1 and in this system, there is ample room for Dembele as the Frenchman has played in all of Barcelona’s La Liga matches so far this season. His performances have also improved as he has already scored five goals in all competitions including three match winners against Sevilla in the Super Cup and away to Real Valladolid and Real Sociedad at the Anoeta.
In the Champions league, Dembele has already equalled his tally for last season with a beautiful strike against PSV Eindhoven, but his improvement has not just been in the statistic. Dembele’s tactical understanding and spatial awareness has improved a lot, as well as his decision-making. He now loses the ball less often and is more at home playing “The Barcelona Way” than he was last season.
In this world of high transfer fees, the temptation to immediately judge a player after a few games is huge especially with the media constantly breathing down everyone’s neck, however, clubs would be well-advised to be more patient with their young players and give them time to develop and prove their worth. Dembele’s story is a case in point that with a little patience and hard work, encouragement and the right tactical system, a young player can flourish even after a bad season at a big club like FC Barcelona.