Ousmane Dembélé scored his first goal in a Barcelona shirt against Chelsea, but that wasn’t all. In fact, the young winger had a good game all around, and it may mark a huge turning point in his career.
Ernesto Valverde has gone into big games in the UEFA Champions League with 10 of the 11 names on the team sheet more or less set in stone. It’s always Marc-André ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto, Gerard Piqué, Samuel Umtiti, Jordi Alba, Ivan Rakitić, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez ... and ... who knows.
Paulinho had taken up that role as the team’s fourth midfielder, but his form has gotten a little colder, and there was a legitimate question about who Ernesto Valverde would play in the second leg. Aleix Vidal and André Gomes were also in contention, but in the end, he went with Dembélé.
Without a doubt, Dembélé is the most talented out of the four but he’s had a hard time adapting since his move from Borussia Dortmund. Not only was he adapting to a new league and a new country, everyone says that moving to Barcelona in particular can be a challenge as the footballing alphabet is totally different. And then on top of that, a serious injury, followed by another, less serious injury, completely broke his ability to get into a rhythm. There were rumors that he was having trouble at home and even with his diet.
Dembélé though, made the case very forcefully to Valverde that he was ready to start with his best performance for the club yet in the 2-0 win over Málaga. And the coach, who has sometimes been criticized as overly cautious, repaid the youngster’s effort with the faith to put him in the team for the crucial match against Chelsea.
Dembélé made two exceptional plays that people will remember for a while. One, receiving a pass from Messi and smashing it into the net. The other, a last-ditch sliding tackle to deny Marcos Alonso a chance to shoot from within the box. But he made a few other players, plus in general, he was solid. He’s not a defensive ace, but he certainly did not skirt responsibility. His workrate was commendable. On offense, he didn’t shy away from the ball. He didn’t choose the safe option every time like some youngsters or new guys on the team may have felt compelled to. Let’s not forget that Chelsea is still a great team, this is not against some minnow in the league.
It wasn’t perfect, of course. He lost the ball a bit, particularly by making some less-than-crisp passes. However, he reacted well after making mistakes, doing his best to recover the ball. After the match, he said he had a penchant for losing the ball in “silly ways,” and that he had to improve in that area. That maturity is very important, because he has the skills to be truly exceptional if he applies himself the right way. The fact that he was substituted off for Vidal, who is at this moment a better defender, isn’t too surprising.
Do you see anyone but Dembélé starting in the next Champions League match, assuming he is fit? I don’t. Sure, Valverde might sub him out for Vidal to defend a lead, for example. But until further notice, the 11th name on the team is Ousmane Dembélé.
What’s really interesting is what Valverde will do in big games in the league and for the Copa del Rey final, where Philippe Coutinho will be available. Does the Frenchman go to the bench? Maybe, after all, Coutinho might be more the finished article than Dembélé. But the Brazilian would have to play on the right, and it’s not his natural spot in Valverde’s set-up.
In any case Dembélé is sure to play a role in the team going forward, and from there... the sky is the limit. Almost everyone agrees, he has the skills to become one of the world’s best. We may have just witnessed the start of something truly amazing.