Ousmane Dembélé is closing in on his return, and as the Champions League approaches, Barça manager Quique Setién will be happy to include him in his plans.
As the clock ticks down for the most coveted competition in the world to restart, a sense of thrill and even anxiety starts invading clubs and fans. With the return of a competition that promises to contain both epic and exceptionality, no one wants to be caught unprepared as the tiniest of details could define the fate of teams and players. Only 10 days are remaining until the Champions League kicks off again, and the picture of the squads and contest starts to clarify.
At Barcelona, not everything is rosy. The loss of La Liga to Real Madrid still hurts and menaces the Catalans with a trophyless season. In Europe, they are favourites to beat Napoli in the last 16 at the Camp Nou, despite the first leg having ended in a 1–1 draw at the Stadio San Paolo. But with the likes of Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Juventus all being potential rivals before the final, it doesn’t look too encouraging this time. To add insult to injury, Arthur Melo is negotiating an early exit, Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal will be suspended against Napoli, a number of players are returning from injury, and all sorts of rumours and talks are taking the centre stage in the Barça camp.
But not all is bad news. Since the first day of his appointment in January, manager Quique Setién declared himself a big admirer of Ousmane Dembélé. Unfortunately, the Cantabrian boss hasn’t been able to enjoy a fit Dembélé yet, since the Frenchman suffered a hamstring injury in early February while he was recovering from previous fitness troubles. Before his latest setback, Setién expressed his satisfaction with the return of what would be a ”new signing”. Six months and a pandemic later, the young winger could now really be the new signing Quique has been longing for ahead of the Champions League.
“Dembélé can give us a lot. We will try to finally show what he has. Let’s hope that his performances will be continuous and see how good of a footballer he really is”
before Ousmane Dembélé got injured in February
Blessed with talent and pace, the quality of Dembélé has been exhibited only in dribs and drabs in his three years at Barcelona. Signed as Neymar’s replacement in 2017, he was said to be a short-term downgrade to the Brazilian, but a long-term improvement to Barça’s weakened options after Ney’s departure. But, while screamers against Tottenham Hotspur or Sevilla filled fans with excitement, Dembélé’s noise has been greater than his impact so far.
“You have to keep in mind that they are still young kids. His dedication, from what I have seen, is total and absolute. I have tears when I see the capacity and intensity in which he works”
on Ousmane Dembélé in February
Albeit some lapses, everyone is conscious of the brutal raw talent of Ousmane. However, his spell at Barcelona so far has been marred by injuries and ceaseless off-pitch controversies, which have led to continuous talks of what the youngsters doesn’t do versus what he could do. Such natural product has not been able to shine on a regular basis through three whole seasons, which should make the former Borussia Dortmund wonderkid certainly accountable for his difficulties.
But with this extraordinary gift, it is also the club who must have a specific program with him in order to take out his best version at Barcelona. Dembélé, now 23, has always needed a guidance and teacher to mark the path for a youngster that has many times behaved like a kid. Now, Quique Setién, a reported enthusiast of his nature and conditions, could be that mentor the French international needs.
There is little doubt about what an in-form Dembélé could provide to Setién’s side. Many times overly horizontal and harmless, this term at Barcelona the passing has had a much greater significance than the dribbling. But the dribbling is quintessential too, and Lionel Messi has been the only master of such art that has displayed it consistently. Barça need to be less academic and more rebellious, and dribblers like Dembélé, who have become endangered species, can provide the verticality, acceleration and unpredictability to leave two, three or four defenders with a simple technical action.
Can Ousmane Dembélé finally shrug off injuries and shine at Barcelona? | Photo by Carlos Sánchez Martínez / Icon Sportswire via Imago
Ousmane’s problems in his positioning and in being precise and fluid in tight spaces are well documented. But as true as this is, it must also be added that this season Barcelona have been in dire need of someone who wouldn’t follow the rules on the pitch. Or, better said, who would follow his own rules, while not breaking the collective structure either. Dembélé struggles to be delicate and disciplined, but such chaos may be useful at times too.
As rivals have spotted and exploited Barça’s weaknesses over and over again, their defects on the flanks have been exposed. When opposing defences use a compact block, the only spaces that they leave will be out wide. With Ansu Fati still not a regular starter when both Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann are fit, and with full-backs not being self-sufficient enough, a true dribbling and destabilising winger is needed for Barcelona. Quique Setién must be exultant with the well-timed recovery of Ousmane ahead of the Champions League.
On Tuesday morning, in the return from the group after their short holidays, Dembélé, Griezmann and Clément Lenglet have been doing light training and specific work. With 11 days until Barça host Napoli at the Camp Nou, starting Ousmane could be a bit too rushed. But the signs are positive and he could at least feature in the clash, and there are reasons to be optimistic. Ousmane Dembélé hasn’t played since November and underwent surgery in Finland in February, but now it finally looks like his return is closer than ever.
Ronald Koeman: Learning to live in imbalance
Throughout the history of FC Barcelona, one-touch, beautiful, attacking football has been part of its culture. The team has been adored and earned plaudits from across the world for their style over the years.
The likes of Johann Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo to name a few, have certainly cemented the attacking philosophy that is almost second nature to the Catalans.
However, in the midst of all this, one part of Barcelona has trailed behind in terms of effectiveness and reliability, i.e. their defence.
The Blaugranas have started their current 2020/2021 season, with the most imbalanced squad over the years. It was bound to happen with the route of balancing the books, taken by the management under ex-president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
The 2020/21 season is undergoing with a new rule of five substitution rule taking it into the hectic schedule in which players will be playing whole season for their respective countries and clubs. Barcelona has a good depth in every position, excluding the centre-backs. It looks like every week, former-Everton man is given a new puzzle to solve.
Blindfolded to the season-long intensity
Without a doubt, Barca has a lot of depth in their squad, definitely more than most seasons, but not for every position. Barça is in dire need of a dependable centre-back given the latest injury of Ronald Araujo against Juventus in the first half.
“Test on Friday has revealed that Ronald Araujo has a femoral biceps (hamstring) injury in his right leg and his availability will now depend on how the injury develops.”Official club statement
The Uruguayan was substituted at half-time after sensing pain in his right leg. So for the senior team, he has played for 238 minutes with 94.7% passing completion and 92.6% long tasing completion. Even though the sample size is quite small, such traits are essential for being a Barcelona defender.
On the other hand, following are the stats of the only fit CBs for the Blaugranas, i.e. Gerard Pique & Clement Lenglet. The Frenchman began his 2019/20 silencing all his critics as the season went by. Arguably, the pundits started regarding him as an indisputable partner to Gerard Pique in starting line-up. We can see the duo played for more than 3000+ minutes each in last season.
But, since the restart of the campaign post coronavirus break, the duo is looking lost. They have constantly been showing a lack of composure at the back, and have made reckless challenges in the process. The recent example of this can be not tracking Federico Valverde’s run in the El Clasico, letting him have an ample of space in the first place, after which the goal was inevitable.
Winning the aerial duals has not been one of the strongest traits for Clement Lenglet’s campaign, as the stats suggest as well. Several instances have been there where he crumbles under pressure in the attempt of winning an aerial duel. We can look at the incident vs Real Madrid no more than one week ago, involving a shirt pull in the box and giving away a soft penalty.
With Pique – Lenglet already looking weak and no other direct replacements if something goes wrong, the road looks tougher for the coaching staff.
La Masia to the rescue?
Is going back to the club roots an only option left for Koeman? Certainly, looks like it. But, currently Barcelona B centre back Oscar Mingueza is sidelined as well due to discomfort in the muscular regions of his leg.
Another option is centre-back Argentine centre-back Santiago Ramos Mingo. He is fit, but cannot be played in Champions League at least due to lack of his tenure with the club as an academy player.
This leaves the Koeman’s staff with Samuel Umtiti as their last option, who has returned to group training sessions. Though, it would take a while for him to be declared match-fit, depending on him after being plagued with multiple injuries gives no assurance as well.
If none of this works, we could also see one of Frenkie de Jong or Sergio Busquets playing alongside another CB if required. But, that would mean compulsorily fielding Busquets, which is a danger to the team in the first place, given his sharp dip in form.
What does it mean for the remainder of the season?
It is clear that Barca is vulnerable and unbalanced as a team, and a ruthless attack will be pivotal for this season to see games through. Blaugranas usually keep the higher percentage of possession with themselves, scoring more goals than they concede. Additionally, Ronald Koeman’s pressing tactics have also been working to the point for now with many young prospects making a mark in the senior team.
There is a lot of reliability on the attacking unit this season. (Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP)
As long as they are clinical upfront until the end of the season, conceding (especially from dead-ball situations) might not be as bad. This is because Barcelona’s defensive problems cannot be resolved right now, maybe not even in the winter transfer window, due to financial constraints.
Well, there are many unanswered questions to be answered in the next 3 months. How will the team so defensively unbalanced, cope up, until the transfer market opens up? What happens if due to the financial restrictions, a backup could not be signed? What do you think Barca can do to remedy this vulnerability in defence?
Pie charts from Football Slices.