Philippe Coutinho leaving Liverpool to join Barcelona is the big rumor so far in the winter transfer window, but that may not come to pass. What is definite though, is the return of Ousmane Dembélé to the Camp Nou pitch. And that is a big, big boost for the Blaugrana, who have at times lacked other options to get to goal besides Lionel Messi.
Of course, Barcelona are sitting atop La Liga with a fairly comfortable lead, nine over second-place Atlético Madrid. They topped their UEFA Champions League group and are in the next round of the Copa del Rey. Things have gone pretty well so far.
Dembélé’s inclusion is the kind that could boost Barcelona from a very solid team to a great one, for two reasons. One, Dembélé is an extremely talented player. Even at his young age, he’s very skillful with either leg, and shows pretty good decision making. He’s also lightning-fast.
Two, Dembélé is exactly the kind of player Barcelona don’t have many of - a guy who can get behind the defense and on the end of Messi’s passes, or create on his own. Gerard Deulofeu and Aleix Vidal are the closest, but they’re miles away from world class. After that, Barcelona have relied on Jordi Alba, for example, to make those darting runs. Dembélé could prove a huge boost.
But just as much as it’s a blessing, it’s a challenge for Ernesto Valverde. First, Dembélé is young and coming off a big injury, the first in his career. He’s still adapting to the league, to the country, to the city, to the team. And the expectations are sky-high.
And Valverde has, after lots of experimentation, found his winning formation without him. A 4-4-2 with Paulinho getting forward, or, alternatively, Paco Alcácer going up when Barcelona have the ball but dropping into a four man midfield when needed.
Dembélé is, without question, a better player than either of them. But changing a winning formula is difficult. Dembélé is not a like-for-like replacement for either Paulinho or Paco. That means the whole team has to adjust. When Dembélé played this season, Luis Suárez looked very uncomfortable as a left-sided forward.
Putting that puzzle together is exactly what the coach is paid to do, though. And the most straightforward way to go about it is to use Dembélé the way Valverde has used Deulofeu this season. Deulofeu would go up to play as a winger when Barcelona have the ball, but go back into that now-familiar four man midfield when Barcelona needed to defend. That could be the final answer, or it could be something else.
It’s up to the young star and his coach to figure it out. It won’t be easy, but the payoff will be huge.