2022 is just around the corner, yet Ousmane Dembele’s tumultuous Barcelona career is seemingly yet to get off the line. Ever since the Frenchman was signed for an exorbitant sum in 2017, he has been a polarising figure, but never has that mould been broken.
As the years go by, patience slowly runs out. Probably now more than ever. The Frenchman has refused to extend his contract, according to multiple reliable sources, and is set for a Bosman exit in the next six months.
Frustration rose, while hopes of the 24-year-old succeeding become fainter with each passing day. Unable to justify the faith placed on his shoulders, Dembele is certainly aware of the pressure that never ceases to augment.
This term, yet another injury for the troublesome youngster has forced Barcelona to explore its youth ranks. Abdessamad Ezzalzouli and Ilias Akhomach have both stepped in, standing their ground commendably. The sudden emergence of such competition is yet another thorn in Dembele’s side, potentially a lethal one for his high hopes in Catalunya.
Prior to the two youngsters’ breakthroughs, the Frenchman was the sole bearer of Barça’s ambitions down the wings. No matter how disappointing his performances, the importance of his role always helped his case. Now, however, a role of any significance is not to be taken for granted anymore. So, with such a variety of choices, is there a single alibi in Dembele’s favour?
In this article, Barça Universal examine the odd case of the Rennes academy graduate, evaluate his competitors’ chances and emphasise the necessity of doing away with his services as soon as possible.
Ousmane Dembele’s controversial stint in Barcelona has been investigated on countless occasions. Injuries and disciplinary issues have hindered his game time, and the youngster has been unable to escape from the vicious cycle of recurrent problems. Going through all that again is pretty much pointless.
What is of greater interest is his in-game development over time: where and whether he has made headway, as well as the nuances still holding him back.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to remain optimistic when tracking down the Frenchman’s progress. Defects that plagued him before persist to this day, while his primary strengths are yet to be polished.
Offensively, he is still immature in his judgement. Not knowing when to drop off and when to run in behind, Dembele is thus often erratic in his decision-making. When operating as the main creator, he is barely a menace. With a heavy first touch, poor timing, coordination and constant lapses of concentration, the 24-year-old is far from reliable down the touchline.
Wingers are there to push all boundaries and are fully entitled to be dispossessed at times. However, there is a line to be drawn, which the Frenchman frequently exceeds. He is still too reliant on his burst of pace; invaluable aspects such as body feints and spatial awareness are nearly absent from his skillset.
Runs into space are perhaps the lesser of two evils. Dembele’s mind-boggling acceleration is tough to match, allowing him to easily breeze past his opponent. Yet even there, his struggles do not abate. Ill-timed movement and incorrect body orientation will often place him on the back foot.
In the build-up phase, where wingers carry such huge importance, his contribution is minimal. Rarely will he ever drop deeper and detach himself from his marker, which deprives Barcelona of a valuable resort for progression. And even when he does, he will often fail to adjust his positioning, becoming easy prey for the opposition.
The former Borussia Dortmund man has been lambasted for his idle approach to pressing, too. Again, basic in-game understanding is missing: poorly measured pressures, inability to track down his marker and maintain the team’s compact shape make Ousmane Dembele nothing more than a hologram in that regard.
Defensive duties are just as much of a disaster. Frequently losing composure, or blatantly misjudging the situation, his incompetence often leaves the fullback high and dry. The caveat is that, at his age, better situational discernment is absolutely mandatory. How long could it be till all patience is exhausted?
Compile all these, and what you would get is a heap of fundamental flaws that have not been dealt with for what feels like an eternity.
Dembele possesses a set of qualities that can sometimes give him the benefit of the doubt. His jaw-dropping speed, both-footedness and mammoth stride make him a force to be reckoned with in some instances.
Nevertheless, stagnation and lack of adaptation mean that the in-game context permitting him to spread his wings is very restricted. It, therefore, becomes evident that the skillset at his disposal is not enough to outweigh his deficiencies.
One of the alarming initiators of all struggles is the Frenchman’s inability to maintain full focus for 90 minutes. Whatever the reason behind it, he frequently switches off and back on mid-game. And in a sporting environment where minor details have major consequences, each lapse of concentration can prove fatal.
The more concerning issue, though, is his sheer lack of in-game understanding. Naturally gifted though he may be, Dembele simply cannot comprehend some fundamental aspects of the game, hence the dreadful execution. Thus, his functions are one-sided, to a point where that severely hampers his performance. Given no headway has been recorded in five years, is there much hope of a turnaround?
The ‘spectre’ of youth upon Dembele’s return
Even if a slight glimmer of hope still flickered in the back of some fans’ minds, the 21/22 season has seen Ousmane Dembele’s importance diminish even further. His old woes struck once again: two consecutive injuries deprived him of any action for a good 17 games.
Yet it was neither the injury itself nor the rather slow phase-in that followed, that threaten his continuity the most. The main concern is the sudden emergence of two young competitors – Abdessamad Ezzalzouli and Ilias Akhomach.
The two youngsters, albeit not an immediate menace, have a ceiling high enough to soon dislodge the Frenchman. Both have enjoyed a fruitful campaign to date standing in for Dembele in his absence. It, therefore, seems like a matter of time before his starring role in Barcelona truly ends up at knifepoint.
Abde, signed from Hercules in the past summer, has been a genuine revelation this term. Initially impressing with the subsidiary, the Moroccan was quick to climb up the pecking order come Ronald Koeman’s dismissal. Ever since then, he has been a familiar presence off the bench or even in the starting lineup.
The argument against Dembele is that, despite being four years younger, Abde already delivers much of what was expected from the former. An innate dribbler, his prowess in isolation has done wonders in Xavi’s system.
The threat that his reactivity and runs in behind pose often pins back the opposition, allowing the Blaugrana more time on the ball in the early phases. And, when it comes to the final third, the Moroccan becomes the main source of creativity down the flanks.
Evidently, he still has many nuances to polish, like decision-making, timing and passing. But at the other end of the spectrum, so does Dembele. Considering the age gap and salary differential, Abde looks like the one to stick with for the long term.
Ilias Akhomach, a further three years younger than Abde, is another prospect to look out for. While his debut in Xavi’s inaugural game at the helm is the sole opportunity he has received thus far, he has set the world alight with Juvenil A and Barça B and looks destined to do so with the senior side soon.
His profile does not bear the slightest resemblance to Dembele’s, but the Spaniard is no less valuable. He is endowed with a far more multi-layered skillset, making him a menacing outlet regardless of the in-game context.
A man possessed on the move, Akhomach shines in all situations, whether that be open space or enclosure. He has a keen eye for the extraordinary, adding more unpredictability to his team’s offensive actions. And, crucially, he never enters a battle with his mind made up; his remarkable speed of thought allows him to bide his time and act accordingly.
Just like Abde, Ilias still has his work cut out for him if he is to live up to his limitless potential. As an all-around entity, he is already better off than both his competitors, having a plethora of vital qualities already in his locker. Once the execution matches his audacious nature, Akhomach will grow into a true offensive juggernaut.
A further point in the two youngsters’ favour is their defensive activity. In stark contrast to the passive Dembele, they manifest great desire and, curiously enough, better positional understanding.
A risk (not) worth it?
One particular aspect that exacerbates the situation is the imminent expiration of Ousmane Dembele’s contract. As of the first of July, 2022, he will be a free agent, marking the end of a five-year stint.
With his performance and long-term growth still an unknown, the Barcelona board has been working towards renewing the Frenchman’s contract, on more modest terms, since Xavi and Joan Laporta hold him in very high regard, believing he is one of the biggest keys to success in the club’s new era.
Additionally, their massive investment in him would go to waste if they could not recoup any of the money back and let him leave for free. The logical decision to attempt renewing his contract was perhaps primarily financial.
After recent developments in the long-drawn-out renewal saga, it seems like El Mosquito is not really a fan of these modest terms. The talks seem to have broken down with major disagreements between the parties, which now makes it look like a contract extension is in the rearview mirror.
The fans have also not taken too kindly to the reports, branding it as an utter disrespect to the club. The perspective is understandable, considering Dembele’s case has given them more frustration than joy in the entirety of his stint with the Azulgranas.
For the club, however, this should be the final telling sign that trying to persuade the Frenchman for a renewal is redundant. As painful as it will be to the pockets, offloading his wages is the best they can hope for now, and stop trying to water a plant that refuses to grow.
Given the club’s dire financial situation, Dembele’s contract renewal, even on more favourable conditions, is an unnecessary gamble. Progress, in his case, is far from guaranteed.
After all, how long can Barcelona live on the tantalising glimpse of ‘what could have been’ alone? It is high time that the consequences of not aiding the club in this era be laid in stone.