When now-former Barcelona sporting director Robert Fernandez traveled to Rennes to watch a Ligue 1 fixture between Stade Rennais F.C. and FC Nantes, he hoped to see a glimpse of the French wonderkid Ousmane Dembele. Instead, he got more than just a glimpse as Dembele wowed with a hat-trick in a 4-1 win. His performance spiked interest from Barca and they kept him on their radar even after his move to Borussia Dortmund in 2016.
After the drama-filled Neymar transfer saga last summer, Barca officials believed that it was best to accelerate a deal with Dortmund to finally bring in Dembele.
But the plan was always for Dembele to sign with his dream club. As he rose up through the ranks at Rennes, several clubs in Europe began to express interest in the young French forward. And one of them was of course, Barcelona. While he ended up signing for Dortmund in 2016, Dembele had his eye on eventually playing alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.
”I had a meeting with Barcelona. I had told them: ‘For next season it’s not possible, but the next time you contact me, I’ll come,’ and that is what happened.”
Source | ESPN
After completing a then-club record €115m transfer deal, Dembele had the weight of the world on his shoulders. For a club that does not have much patience for underperformers, Dembele was tasked with adjusting to the Barca system and playstyle immediately while also contributing in replacing the production that Neymar left. This is clearly a demanding and pressure-filled responsibility that only the best would be able to handle.
But in Dembele’s case, he did well in living up to the hype in his first year with the club last season. The French international finished with four goals and nine assists in 23 games in all competitions.
The season did come with a fair share of highs and lows. The Camp Nou rose up in admiration during the Barca and Espanyol fixture when Dembele received a ball on the right flank and delivered a pass right to Suarez where he did the rest and scored. Barca fans grew fonder of Dembele after his dazzling goal against Chelsea in the second leg of the Champions League Round of 16 tie.
The lows saw him miss considerable time due to a muscle injury and then when he was fully fit, he struggled to earn the trust of Valverde to consistently receive significant playing time.
After a promising first season with Barca and a World Cup-winning campaign with France, all the focus will be on Dembele to perform at an even higher level and become a central force in Barca’s attack. Dembele has all the potential to develop into a player that will become a serious contender for the Ballon d’Or in the future and he is at the right club to achieve it, especially playing alongside an unselfish superstar in Lionel Messi who once reportedly said that he would make Neymar a Ballon d’Or winner if he stayed at Barca.
As with any young, promising talent, how the player develops in terms of the physical and mental elements of the game will be the driving indicator as to the level that the player can reach. For Dembele, it begins with perfecting all aspects of his game. Starting with his strengths, his talents are best exploited when making runs on the flank with possession. His pace and speed can overmatch opposing fullbacks and shift defenders away from their positions on the pitch. When he is able to maintain possession and prevent turnovers in critical situations, he becomes a major threat in Barca’s attack.
His potential was best illustrated in arguably his most impressive play of the season-- his second goal against Villarreal.
Going back to the mental aspects of the game, he has impressed so far. Dembele was able to move into the winger position for Barca without any major issues. He proved to be a quick learner and most importantly, had a good understanding of Barca’s play -- which was a characteristic he was able to manage as the season progressed and something that will be key in his development.
What will also be key in his development is slotting him into the formation that he is more comfortable in. Whether it is as a winger in a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or possibly in a 4-4-2 if he could emerge as a secondary striker that plays as a deep-lying forward, Dembele will have a multitude of options to play where he feels best at.
For Dembele to grow into a long-term contributor for the club, the coaching staff and board must respond with their full trust in him.
As a young talent, he could possibly be bound to reach a point where his struggles become a burden to the rest of the team, whether he is wasting goal-scoring chances or losing possession in crucial moments.
It will be important for Valverde and the coaching staff to respond with their utmost confidence in him and provide him with opportunities to excel, especially in the biggest games of the season. Last season, he did not play against Atletico, Real, first leg against Chelsea and played in just five total minutes in the quarter-final tie against Roma. This is a player that featured in every Champions League game while with Dortmund and played in significant minutes against Bayern Munich throughout the 2016-2017 season. For the upcoming season, Dembele is more than ready to feature in some of the biggest games of the season and gain pivotal experience with opportunities to flourish.
Now aside from extremely rare cases such as with Lionel Messi and Pele, players do not grow into world class players in their early 20s. It takes time and patience for a player to reach their full potential and capabilities on the pitch as they learn from experience and growth on the pitch.
While this has been rumored over the past couple of months, a loan option should be immediately ruled out. For an immense player like Dembele, a loan deal would be a setback to his development. Playing for a middle of the table team in La Liga or a loan spell back to the Bundesliga would not benefit his growth as a player. With the extraordinary opportunity of learning from one of the best strikers of this generation in Luis Suarez and the best player in the world in Lionel Messi, there is no need to learn from other coaches or players when you have these two.
As he stated, he recognizes the importance of playing for Barca and hopes to do what is needed to succeed.
”This is the best club in the world with the best players in the world ... My aim is to do everything for the club, everything for the team, and to have an understanding with my team-mates.”
Source | Goal
Even with the French national team, the opportunity is there to also learn and mold into an all-around attacking threat while playing with Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann.
Now what Dembele means for Barca’s future is more than just a replacement for the production that Neymar had or a short-term solution for an eventual bigger signing but rather part of the long-term solution for the next era of Barca. While it is far away to even think about it at the moment, Dembele is bound to be one of the core players that will lead Barca’s next generation after Messi leaves the club or takes a lesser role.
With the right mentality and improved overall play, Dembele will be among the next generational talents of this era.