Tuesday night saw FC Barcelona draw against Tottenham Hotspur in the final group match of this year’s Champions League. Barca were already guaranteed top spot in Group G, meaning the match meant little to Ernesto Valverde’s side.
The inclusion of Ousmane Dembele in the starting eleven was no surprise as in the pre-game press conference Valverde had already communicated that he had “pardoned” the youngster for his most recent display of lack of discipline.
To put this act of amnesty into context for those living under a rock, this time it had been reported that the young Frenchman had shown up two hours late for practice leading up to the Champions League clash.
It’s well-known by now that this wasn’t the first exploit of unprofessional conduct coming from the keen late night video gamer. The topic of Dembele’s disorderly conduct has been one, which the media has latched onto to create witch-hunt like headlines for some time. All the while, the Barça forward himself does little to dispel the image they’ve created of him, as a spun out of control rebellious, careless, tardiness offender.
When asked how he thinks to solve this disciplinary problem, the FC Barcelona manager answered, “I don’t know, I don’t know” before finally finishing the sensitive topic by saying “we will resolve the problems internally and help him”.
But what if the answer of how to solve the unpunctuality issue is simply to do nothing at all? What if instead of fines or being benched, the Barcelona technical staff and executives would apply more autonomy and let this kid figure things out for himself?
Let’s face it; despite all of the bad press Ousmane gets, his numbers this season are phenomenal. He is having a stellar season in front of goal with nine goals and four assists already and is currently statistically on course to rival one of Neymar’s best seasons at the Barcelona club (2016/17 when he scored 13 goals and contributed 15 assists in 30 Liga matches).
Perhaps the best way for Valverde and the locker room to treat Dembele is by letting him be this season. Grant him all the independence he longs for. He’s an adult and should be treated as such. If his behavior is still immature that’s only something we can all relate to. At 21 I still felt like an immortal teenager unaware of my responsibilities and consequences of my actions. In fact, for good or bad, oftentimes I did not take kindly or respond well to people or institutions evoking authority upon me.
Today at 37 that’s changed (somewhat...) but only through trial and error. It’s called growing up. Maturing. An area in life nobody helps you with or necessarily has patience for at least in the professional working world. Instead, you learn through experiences based on the reactions caused by your actions, which can be both negative and positive. The point here is that you learn your lessons accordingly. As people we’re all very different and respond to diverse stimulus. More autonomy, choosing your working hours and making sure you get the job done when it matters could be an approach and solution needed for Dembele.
I’ve been asking the question if Barça fans would really care if Ousmane continued to arrive late if he kept scoring crucial goals and making phenomenal plays like he has been? Of course the easy answer is yes, because such an attitude shows a lack of team commitment and a spoiled, entitled, uncaring behavior is counterproductive when building team chemistry.
But what if it had the opposite effect? What if Dembele would continue to exceed our expectations and the team would even start playing together harmoniously? Again, I am not stating anything real. It’s simply a hypothetical question, which has gotten me thinking. Would I care if, in this case, Dembele continued to show up late for practice if he continues to score goals & give assists? The answer is no. Some people live a happier, more fulfilled and productive life when given the freedom and trust to get the work done. Some even manage to get it done in an exceptional manner exceeding expectations.
For most reading this, this may still seem like a silly, “pie in the sky”-like argument. I’m very well aware that there are many cases where a lack of authority had contrary consequences and even ruined careers. Names like Ronaldinho, Patrick Kluivert, and Diego Maradona come to mind. But going to extreme lengths to force players to abide by your law has also proven detrimental to teams’ synchronization. Just look at how managers the likes of Pep, Louis van Gaal, and Luis Enrique ended their time at Barça.
Perhaps rather than punishing unwanted behavior we instead need to try to give the confidence and self-government to individuals to make their own decisions based on their output. If their performances exceed those expectations for the greater good and the common goal then just let things be. Anything contrary should require adjustments because in such cases the output efficiency and quality is below expectations. That’s where you work together to find a solution.
But for now, in Dembele’s case, him being late has not affected his individual production. That’s not to say there isn’t still much left to be desired from his collective effort and integration within the team. Evidently, he can hugely improve his understanding of movement of his teammates and his defensive efforts. That surely can only come from many hours of working together as a collective unit, which in return comes from spending as much time together practicing. But there’s an answer in this fairytale hypothesis somewhere. I’m certain of it.