With the Bundesliga restarting this weekend, let’s take a look at the four current azulgrana players to have played in the German league. Ousmane Dembélé and his wonderful spell at Borussia Dortmund did not disappoint, as it preceded his subsequent move to Barcelona.
Fans often overhype many young players because of their age. They think youngsters should start every game and they will develop just like that. However, some talents are genuinely amazing when they play and deserve the praise they get after outstanding performances. In our generation, many footballers were highly regarded before falling off the face of the Earth after some time. Promising prospects like Adel Taarabt or Bojan Krkić are now playing their trade for smaller clubs than people imagined they would play for. Bojan excited every culé, and his debut campaign encouraged the blaugrana faithful a lot. But, after unsuccessful loan spells where he couldn’t showcase his talents properly mainly because of injuries, he was released from his boyhood club.
Nonetheless, Bojan’s talent doesn’t compare to Ousmane Dembélé‘s superb ability and obvious potential. The winger is one of the four current Barcelona players to have played in the Bundesliga. Dembélé was the definition of a wonderkid at Borussia Dortmund. After a superb debut course for Stade de Rennes, the Frenchman, a Barça supporter, decided to go step by step despite the big clubs’ interest. At the Signal Iduna Park, Ousmane took the world by storm. Far from his injury-prone self, the electric winger was one of the main men in attack, absolutely annihilating Bundesliga defences with his explosiveness and skills. Many fans would have fallen in love with the sport had they watched Ousmane Dembélé in his solitary season in Germany. Before Jadon Sancho came into life at Dortmund, they had a gem that destroyed the assist charts in the Bundesliga with twelve assists to his teammates.
A sensation in the Bundesliga and a winner of the DFB-Pokal, Dembélé was on fire as a teenager in Germany | Photo by Lars Baron / Bongarts via Getty Images
His best moment came in the DFB-Pokal, where the powerful Bayern got a taste of his skills as he destroyed the Bavarians’ defence with his trademark crochet. This sublime skill, which he masters to perfection, was used to dismantle Bayern before scoring an absolute belter in Manuel Neuer’s top corner. After that supreme goal, the media in France, mainly L’Équipe, began talking about Dembélé’s ceiling and comparing him to his friend Kylian Mbappé. The hype over the former Rennes youngster was tangible. European giants then began scrutinising his performances to get a better look at him.
It’s fair to say that Dembélé hasn’t found his feet at the Camp Nou, and that’s mainly due to recurring injuries. Nevertheless, his style was obviously more suited to Tuchel’s Dortmund than to Valverde’s Barcelona, and the drastic stylistic change at the Camp Nou with Setién could improve his displays in Spain. Under Tuchel’s more direct football, Dembélé completely understood his role and was the focal point of the attack with his pace enabling counter-attacks to feed the strikers. Accompanied by his friend Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, another pacey forward, he was devastating in the final third as defenders could not keep up with his blistering speed and quality.
In a difficult season for everyone involved with the Yellow Wall, Ousmane was a bright spot. The horrible terrorist attack before their Champions League quarter-final against Monaco marked the 2016/17 campaign at Dortmund, as Marc Bartra was injured in this terrible incident, but they showed the former Barça defender respect by giving their all every match. Dembélé’s hunger for success, despite continuous setbacks, still follows him nowadays at Barcelona.
Expectations were high when Dembélé was signed to replace Neymar in 2017 | Photo by Lluis Gene / AFP via Getty Images
Also, the Bundesliga’s love for electric youngsters and their style made him win the league’s Rookie of the Season as he obliterated defenders left, right and centre. His campaign at Dortmund made him Barça’s replacement for Neymar, and it’s bizarre how he currently gets injured a lot more at the Camp Nou than at the Signal Iduna Park. Hopefully, Setién’s interest in the player, as he has touted him as a new signing, reverts the 23-year-old’s fortunes. Setién’s positive brand of football could fit him way more, and he is expected to be much more effective in the Cantabrian coach’s system.
That said, Dortmund will always look back at Ousmane’s spell with pride as he achieved unreal things in the Bundesliga. Dembélé’s time with Die Borussen may well be his favourite in his short career. The winger made the headlines and some friends there too, as he’s still close to Aubameyang even if they have parted ways and put BVB behind them. Now, the youngster’s goal is to go back to this sort of form in Catalonia. If he is played in a role that suits him, and if Setién has faith in him, he should succeed. His talent is clear and the Frenchman is an outstanding player on his day. That’s why culés plan on keeping him this summer.
Ronald Koeman starts to find the pieces to Barça’s jigsaw
While the whole Europe has started or is approaching to start their respective national campaigns, Ronald Koeman is trying to find the right system to display his force as soon as the La Liga season starts for Barça in about a week. But with the Nàstic and Girona friendlies already on the Dutch manager’s stomach, has he already found the right men to do the job?
As Barcelona’s start of the season finally approach, after the team had more rest days due to the late Champions League ending, it is fair to underline how its newest manager, new coach Ronald Koeman is still trying to find the right notes to complete the symphony. A symphony that is yet to be completed and to be refined, but certainly one that has been quickly asserting the right tracks under its belly.
This year’s preseason has been an unknown for all professional sports out there, with many having to occur in faster, soarer training sessions than usual. While the fitness aspect of it all will probably be the main cause of differences this season, as fitness coaches had to reduce the workloads and increase speed sessions to keep the players fresh and ready, the managers’ job will be much harder in terms of creating the right harmony and cohesion in a short period of time. There is no enough time to practice the desired movements, tactical systems and other structural aspects of a team’s in-pitch organisation.
Barça, apart from an athletic routine that hasn’t much been under scrutiny in recent history due to the club’s different values, had a few more problems to cope with. Lionel Messi‘s transfer saga, the motion of no confidence against president Josep Maria Bartomeu, a new manager, a strange signings strategy – both in and out of the club –, and more. In all the chaos that Barcelona is right now, Koeman’s job has been much harder than what it could have been under normal circumstances. Still, the Dutchman is slowly finding his rhythm with the team.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona is taking shape | Photo by David Ramos via Getty Images
One of the biggest tactical unknowns of Koeman’s appointment was whether he was going to keep Barça’s vintage 4–3–3 system, or if he was going to change it in a 4–2–3–1, due to his own preferences and the team’s characteristics. After very much debating between fans and pundits, the first two friendlies of Barça’s short preseason gave the environment the answer it was looking for: 4–2–3–1.
While the tactical system is different from the culés‘ traditional one, Koeman’s mentality and footballing ideas are far from being the opposite of Barça’s. Offensive, intense and vertical football are a must for Barcelona’s expectations as much as Koeman’s interpretations. There is a perfect binomial conduction between the club and its new employee.
Football in preseason is as much a test for all the players in a team’s roaster as a training to keep the legs rolling and the lungs filling the air. So were the recent friendlies against Nàstic de Tarragona and Girona. As expected, Koeman literally played eleven different players per half in both games, with a few changes in the last one. And as the coach was varying things and changing the pieces of the puzzle, you could already see the ideas, the movements, the principles that he wanted to give to the team.
As many distressed fans have already noticed, the defence that suffered eight goals against Bayern Munich has not changed a bit. While it may seem discouraging for some, having such individual qualities at the back paired with some solid and correct defensive training may end up being the best signing Barça could do to improve its backline.
With Marc-André ter Stegen on its way back to recovery after surgery, Neto will be the only difference in Barcelona’s defence this season, with lack of competition from the bench arising. At least, as long as Manchester City keeps its firm stand on the Eric García situation and Sergiño Dest doesn’t move to the Camp Nou.
With a proven-to-be two-man midfield in Barça’s new squad, a Koeman favourite will certainly find his place game in, game out: Frenkie de Jong. As the same manager told upon his arrival, it is a shame to watch players like De Jong – and Antoine Griezmann – in unusual positions, as they will not perform at the levels they are expected to.
“The plan is to start playing Frenkie de Jong in the position that he plays with the national team as well. I remember attending a Barcelona game and I saw him play a position where I wouldn’t play him as a coach. You’ve spent a lot of money on a young player. You should then play him in his own position, where he can perform in a way you’d expect from him. He has shown at Ajax and with the Dutch national team which position suits him best and that is where he will be playing at Barcelona as well”Ronald Koeman
With De Jong‘s place not being threatened by anyone else except himself, it is expected from Riqui Puig and Carles Aleñá to provide that support quality and solutions from the bench or, in some cases, to perform in an eventual three-man midfield, with Puig being hierarchically higher than the former Real Betis loanee.
Next to De Jong is a position that is going to be fought for the whole length of the season: Sergio Busquets’ intelligence or Miralem Pjanić‘s quality? With an ageing Busquets, it will be the first time in twelve years that his place will be under severe scrutiny by the club, as years go by and fresher legs come in place. But while the Bosnian’s quality will be very much needed throughout the entire season, Busquets’ tactical awareness is going to be a solid piece of refinery yet again.
Slowly approaching Barça’s biggest guns, it is no secret that the Catalan’s team offensive overbooking is going to keep several doors open throughout the whole season. Having the freedom of two players per position is a manager’s dream, but while it may be a benefit, it is also a challenge to keep the team balanced and the moods paced.
With the signings of two youngsters such as Francisco Trincão and Pedri, both incredibly bright against Nàstic and Girona, Barcelona’s wide game takes a big jump in terms of volume, youth and creativity. But with Luis Suárez’s mysterious future under supervision, the seniority of Barça’s main man upfront will take its advantage overall. At least initially.
“I liked Trincão positionally, sometimes coming inside and sometimes going outside. He has the quality and has to adapt to the speed and rhythm. He’s a great signing”Ronald Koeman, on Francisco Trincão after the 3–1 win over Nàstic last Saturday
Apart from Ansu Fati, who is already considered a senior throughout the whole footballing world, Messi and Antoine Griezmann seem to be Koeman’s main men for the central roles up top: as much as they will both exchange their positions, the Argentinian is destined to take the playmaking role, while the French World Cup winner will move around him and try to create spaces and finish chances for the team.
Besides Barça’s business, Philippe Coutinho is another player to have returned to the blaugrana headquarters. Full of determination, he will look to prove himself once and for all where he wanted to be ever since his Liverpool days. With similar motives to the Brazilian’s, but with different sources, Ousmane Dembélé is approaching the start of a defining season for him: either he proves to be world-class or he goes home. And with the explosion of Ansu Fati and the incredible talent he brings to the field, those three may feature in most of Barça’s games in this start of the season. Ansu Fati’s injury permitting, of course. However, Trincão and Pedri’s talents may change many’s minds, Koeman’s included.
“He [Pedri] is a great talent. He’s 17 and such an important signing for our future. He has trained with us and has the quality to play, so we’ll see how much he can take part”RONALD KOEMAN, AFTER beating NÀSTIC LAST SATURDAY
Ronald Koeman is slowly finding the pieces to solve this incredibly difficult puzzle that Barça appears to be. It is going to take more than just a few friendlies and a few good performances to overturn the season’s predictions around Barcelona’s offices. That is why players are tools for a team to perform. You can have better or worse ones. But the mentality and the identity of a team’s way of playing are principles much more important for a club’s success in the pitch.
It is no surprise that, perhaps, the most positive aspect of the new Barça’s performances over the course of the first two friendlies has not been a single player, a chance created or a defensive movement. Instead, it has been the intensity of the team’s ball movement mixed with those two, maximum three, touches per player.
The path to Barcelona’s native brilliance is long and hard, but having the right mindset to attack this jigsaw is the best strategy that the Dutch manager could employ. One idea, 4–2–3–1, eleven optimal choices and the highest intensity possible. Step by step, game after game, Koeman’s Barça will surface. With patience. And, as in microeconomics when supply meets demand, in football, when principles meet practicality, the puzzle is solved.