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Player Reviews 20/21

Barcelona Season Review 20/21: Ousmane Dembele

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Photo via Imago

How do you solve a problem like Ousmane Dembele? It is not only a question opposing defenders ask themselves but the coaching staff of Barcelona as well. This season marked the fourth of the Frenchman’s time in Barcelona, and it is fair to say that the winger is yet to consistently perform to a level that warrants him being the fifth most expensive player in the history of the sport. 

Champions League-winning manager Thomas Tuchel said in a recent interview with Sky Sports that Dembele was one of the “craziest natural talents” he has ever coached. The Chelsea manager highlighted the Frenchman’s two-footed abilities, pace, dribbling and passing but noticeably left out shooting. 

This sums up the conundrum Barcelona currently faces with Dembele, as the French international has shown his sublime talent on many occasions and has looked unplayable at times, but then when it comes to finishing the move off, a child outside the Camp Nou receives a new football as a gift. 

This has cost Barça several times this season, but in saying that, this season has still somewhat been a positive one for Dembele – mainly since he only missed 6 games as a result of injury – a massive improvement from the previous season. 

Dembele needs to put on his scoring boots more often. (Photo via Imago)

On the pitch, he has shown how valuable he can be for the Blaugrana, scoring big goals, boasting tremendous versatility, and displaying that sublime talent that Barcelona saw when purchasing him from Borussia Dortmund. The Frenchman played 48 games this season with 16 goal contributions, finishing the season with a goal every 245 minutes and as the club’s third-highest scorer in all competitions.

With his contract ending in June 2022, though, and Barcelona desperate for funds, this might have been his last season at the club. If it is, Dembele does depart Camp Nou having given Culers many glimpses of how good he can be, but at the end of the day, they were only glimpses, which conclusively is not good enough for the standards of Barcelona.

Early expectations

The 19/20 campaign was a miserable one for Ousmane Dembele, who ran into injury problem after injury problem throughout the season. This resulted in the Frenchman playing just nine games and had to watch a tough season for Barcelona play out from the sidelines, wondering if he could make a difference. This was, in a way, rock bottom for Dembele and heading into this season, the only way was up. 

At the start of every season since arriving from Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2017, the expectation or question that surrounds the winger is whether this will be the season where he lives up to the €135 million price tag. This is something that has tied many players’ hands at Barcelona and in Spain in general. The hope remains that the 24-year-old can free himself from these shackles and fulfil his potential.  

Dembele lit up the BuLi with Dortmund, and came with huge expectations. (Photo via Imago)

The start of the season was dominated by the future of Lionel Messi. That saga put extra pressure on the other forwards to perform because of the questions surrounding the Argentine’s emotional state and how he would play as a result.

All though this was never in question by fans, Cules still expected the forwards to help more this season, having relied far too much on Messi the year before. 

This extra pressure fell at the door of Antoine Griezmann, which allowed the younger members of the squad, such as Ansu Fati and Dembele, more freedom to perform. Fati certainly lived up to it when the season started.

As for Dembele, the main hope was that the Frenchman could keep fit. If that could be achieved, feelings of not really knowing what to expect were most likely the dominant thought from there.

A lucky draw season

“I think Pedri and Trincao can contribute more defensively than Dembele can, that’s why they played,” was Ronald Koeman’s answer when quizzed on why Ousmane Dembele was an unused substitute in the second game of the season against Celta Vigo. A new season, a new manager and two unknown kids were ahead of the World Cup winner in the manager’s mind, summing up how the season started for him.

Dembele had to claw his way into the XI. (Photo via Imago)

Koeman arrived in Barcelona with a few premeditated ideas of how he would approach the season. The Catalan side would lineup in a 4-2-3-1, Frenkie de Jong would be used as a pivot, and Philippe Coutinho would have a big role in this set-up, which were all evident from the get-go.

With the return of Coutinho, the emergence of Ansu Fati and the two superstars, Lionel Messi, and Antoine Griezmann – there was no room for Dembele. 

Dembele made his first start of the season in the fourth matchday of La Liga away to Getafe, on the left side of the three behind Griezmann. The Frenchman failed to make any significant impact and the rustiness, having started for the first time in 325 days, was apparent. 

This was followed up with an impactful display against Ferencváros in the Champions League, where the World Cup winner came away with a goal and an assist from just 27 minutes of play, but that display could not cement the 23-year-old’s permanent place in the first 11. 

Up until Christmas, Dembele was in and out of the first 11 and scored only one goal in La Liga. In December, the winger picked up the only significant injury of his season and came back from it in surprising form – which unfortunately coincided with a major injury to Coutinho. 

The turn of the year saw Koeman switch to a 4-3-3 and then on to a 3-4-5, two formations that suited Dembele’s playing style. The World Cup winner gained a permanent place in the squad thanks to his versatility and started to gain some confidence in this middle period of the season. 

He contributed significantly to Barcelona’s domestic competitions in this crucial part of the season, scoring big goals against Sevilla and Real Valladolid. Addtionally, Dembele also playing a crucial part in the Copa del Rey campaign before being benched for the final – his season in a nutshell. 

Dembele was a key factor in the CDR run for Barça. (Photo via Imago)

Dembele was phased out of the starting XI 11 again for the run-in with Koeman preferring Griezmann up top with Messi. Before this period, Koeman was adamant he wanted the Frenchman to stay, emphasising the 23-year-olds importance to the team, but now the winger’s future is in doubt again. 

The season was a mixed bag for Dembele, with the positives being the lack of injuries and some encouraging performances. Barcelona fans will demand more, though, and rightfully so, but if the 24-year-old can be tied down long term, this season could be an important building block for the Frenchman.   

The gold among the coal

Levante 3-3 Barcelona; La Liga

The Estadi Ciutat de València on the night of May 11th was the scene of yet another mental collapse from players in the Blaugrana of FC Barcelona. Having been 2-0 up and in control of the game, the Catalan side let the lead slip not once but twice, relinquishing any small hope they held on to in their quest to claim the La Liga crown.  

It was a miserable night for everyone associated with the club, but under all the despair of defeat, the performance of Ousmane Dembele stood as a beacon of positivity – even if it went totally under the radar.  

Dembele spent the five games prior on the bench, but the poor form of Sergino Dest opened a gap for the Frenchman to take his place at right-wingback. When the lineups were announced, the Frenchman’s role turned heads, but ultimately it was a decision that, in hindsight, turned out to be correct. 

A sensational display overshadowed by the result. (Photo via Imago)

Deployed high up on the right, Dembele was a menace all night going forward. In the first five minutes, the 23-year-old played a clinical pass to Frenkie de Jong, who cut it back to Pedri for Barça’s second chance of the game. From there, the World Cup winner grabbed an assist, using his pace to run into a dangerous area before taking a touch and perfectly timing the cutback for Pedri, who did not miss this time.

The second half was a nightmare for Barça, as it saw a Levante comeback to tie the game, but it was Dembele who restored the deficit with a brilliant strike from inside the area, having found himself in plenty of free space. The Frenchman was replaced by Dest on the 82nd minute, and once the Valencian side equalised, his absence became apparent.

Although Dembele would have been disappointed leaving the field in Valencia, he would be happy about what was his best performance of the season. Although his defensive work was questionable, the attacking display was phenomenal. It was another example of how good he could be and left Barça fans wanting more.

Barcelona 3-0 Sevilla; Copa del Rey

The first week in March was a special one in Barcelona, as a key election saw Joan Laporta become the new president of FC Barcelona. This was a day that would be vital for the future of the club, but amongst the politics, everyone present on election day was still talking about the magical night that occurred on Wednesday. 

With Barcelona trailing 2-0 from the first leg, Ronald Koeman’s men mounted a special comeback levelling the tie with a dramatic 94th-minute equaliser from Gerard Pique, which sparked pandemonium on the Barça bench. They eventually went on to win the tie in extra time through Martin Braithwaite, but it was the first goal from Ousmane Dembele that acted as the catalyst for all that followed.

A major confidence-booster. (Photo via Imago)

On the 12th minute, Dembele worked the ball outside the box, paused for a moment, shifted the ball onto his right and then rifled a shot into the top left corner. It was a sublime goal and provided his teammates with the confidence to go on and complete the comeback. 

This was Dembele’s best moment of the season because, frankly, it was the most important. Without this goal, Barça probably would not have completed this dramatic comeback and, as a result, would have gone another season trophyless.

What next?

Dembele’s big question at Barcelona, as it is one that nobody knows the answer to. The Frenchman is good enough to be a starter in the team but needs a coach who can bring that talent out on a more consistent basis, and Ronald Koeman does not look capable of achieving this – although the winger seems much happier under his current boss. 

His contractual situation is worrying as well. When asked about this while on training with the French National Team, he said, “I’m not in a hurry, neither are they, we’ll see what happens.”

Dembele has all eyes on the European championship right now. (Photo via Imago)

There have been plenty of conflicting reports on this situation, but it looks like Joan Laporta will be doing his best to keep Dembele at the club for next season and beyond. As it stands, though, the speculation will continue as long as the European Championship does.

However, it is well documented by now that Barcelona are in the midst of a dire financial crisis, and with the 24-year-old’s contract running out next summer, there could be a significant fee that can be collected for the World Cup winner if the Blaugranas decide to sell him.

If one of the English “super clubs” offered Barça anything over the €50 million mark, most fans would snap their hand off, as it would go a long way in improving the squad for next season. 

The future of Dembele is in his own hands, as Laporta and Koeman want him to stay. For Barça, it would be beneficial if he made that decision sooner rather than later, the reason being that if he decides to leave, it will have to be this summer, and Koeman would ideally want any new players signed with this money to get a full pre-season with the rest of the group.  

End of season rating: 6.5/10

Coming off the back of an injury-ridden campaign, Barcelona fans just wanted Ousmane Dembele to remain fit, and it would be taken from there. This season had its ups and downs for the Frenchman, but overall, it was a positive one compared to previous seasons. 

Dembele remained fit for the majority of the campaign and played the most matches in a single season for Barca since his arrival in the summer of 2017. On the pitch, the ups and downs phrase can be echoed with some brilliant displays often being overshadowed by horrendous finishing. 

In the words of Gattuso: “Sometimes maybe good, sometimes maybe s–t.” (Photo via Imago)

The away leg against Paris Saint Germain is a perfect example, where Dembele pace and movement is forgotten as a result of wasting multiple chances that could have seen Barça go through. Games like this are not forgotten by Culers, but the good work should not be either. 

Without Dembele, Barcelona’s season would have ended trophyless, and the second Clasico of the season would have been meaningless if the Frenchman’s big goals against Real Valladolid and Sevilla were absent. The World Cup winner showed his value on many occasions, but that word occasion is vitally important because that lack of consistency is not good enough at a club as big as Barcelona, and therefore Dembele’s season is an average 6.5 out of 10

Europe is full of fantastic leagues and over the course of my career I hope to tell stories from each one. Pep Guardiola’s Barca side brought my attention as a kid to La Liga and more specifically FC Barcelona, and still to this day is the greatest team I’ve ever seen play. Thierry Henry once said “If you tell me that you love football and you don’t love Barcelona, you’ve a problem”. This is a statement I’m 100% behind and for me, it’s why FC Barcelona has to be a part of my journey as a writer.