The noisy crowds in derbies will be replaced by silent and empty stands. Fans, as irreplaceable as they are, will have to stay aloof these days.
Lionel Messi’s official debut with Barcelona at the age of 17, against Espanyol. The fateful Catalan Derby for the culés in 2007, a game known as El Tamudazo as a late equaliser from Espanyol’s Raúl Tamudo gave Real Madrid the league title. Wayne Rooney’s bicycle kick against the “noisy neighbours” Manchester City. Mario Balotelli’s famous celebration versus Man United with the ‘Why Always Me?’ shirt. Sergio Ramos’ last-gasp goal to Atlético de Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final.
Derbies are always special. Whether the Barcelona Derby, the Manchester Derby, El Derbi Madrileño, the Basque Derby, the Derby della Madonnina, the Revierderby, the Berlin Derby…Iconic moments and episodes built in the greatest rivalries in the world. The passion, the history, the pride, the honour. But, in particular, if there’s something that makes derbies special, that’s the fans.
Derbies are historic clashes between local clubs, usually from the same city. Therefore, with supporters from two different teams living together, the antagonism gets strengthened on a daily basis. No one wants to lose a derby, for the fear of going to work or school the next day and being a victim of endless jokes and mockery. Victory and defeat, two contrasting feelings that collide when opposing fanbases dwell together.
No, it doesn’t feel the same | Photo by Martin Meissner / Pool / AFP via Getty Images
“What’s indispensable in football? Coaches are not indispensable, it doesn’t matter. The media, it doesn’t matter. The directives, it doesn’t matter. Referees, it doesn’t matter. Spectators, it doesn’t matter. The only irreplaceable thing in football is fans. Football is the people”. Marcelo Bielsa, as always, adding wisdom to football once more. Football without fans is nothing. Money, prestige, fame…But, in the end, football is played for and because of the fans. Football is nothing without them.
However, with the coronavirus, football will have to get used to not directly feeling the warmth of the fans. Noise will be replaced by silence. Pressure, by confusion. Roars, by quiet. Twenty-two men will continue to have the same goal, but football will not be the same without fans.
The Hertha Berlin v Union Berlin was due to be loud. The Olympiastadion was patiently waiting to host the newly-promoted Union Berlin in one of Bundesliga’s most appetising encounters. A duel that transcends football, as politics and history play a big role in a once divided German capital. But, today, the Berlin derby will be mute. Like a week ago with the Revierderby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04, only players, coaches and some claps, kicks and whistles will be heard. As Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano would say, “there’s nothing more empty than an empty stadium”.
The pages are blotted with injuries, but Dembele’s Blaugrana story is far from over
Ousmane Dembele runs into the open space ahead of him on the right as Lionel Messi shimmies past a distraught Cesar Azpilicueta. Messi looks up, spots the Frenchman in ample room and nonchalantly passes it towards him. The youngster hurriedly takes the first touch and is left with just enough room to shoot. He then promptly takes it in his stride and fires it into the top left corner to make it 2-0, after which he immediately points towards the Argentinean great.
That was Ousmane Dembele’s first goal for Barcelona after a 4-month hiatus due to an unfortunate injury in his very first season with the Spanish giants. The Cules would’ve been hopeful of him finally coming into his own after that goal, potentially filling a large Neymar shaped hole. Fast forward a couple of seasons and the dynamic Frenchman has failed to make a real impact like people would have hoped of the explosive wonderkid who played for Dortmund.
While Dembele is still young at 23, injuries seem to have derailed his career with Barcelona. Last season Dembele ambled to a meagre 9 appearances in the Blaugrana colours, only 5 of which were starts. Whenever he did play, he looked rusty and lacking game time. Moreover, the emergence of youngster Ansu Fati who presents a similar profile to the Frenchman means more competition, and with him coming off another injury recently and Fati looking grand in the 2-0 victory over Villarreal, his chances of sealing a regular spot look bleak at the moment. It is, therefore, no surprise that Dembele is linked with a move away from Spain, with Manchester United seemingly keeping him on their radar.
Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman, though, could use someone like Dembele. In his first official game in charge, Koeman structured Barca in a 4-2-3-1, with Messi and Coutinho occupying central areas and Fati and Antoine Griezmann occupying the left and right flank respectively. The wingers would regularly tuck in and allow the fullbacks to push up in the broader areas. In an otherwise comfortable 4-0 win for Barcelona, the right flank was a vital issue. Griezmann looked mostly average and did not influence the match much, barring making a handful of runs into the box. He lacked the same explosiveness and directness that Ansu Fati provided on the left flank – looking out of sorts on the right side, having rarely made an appearance in such a role in the past.
If injuries allow him, Dembele could seal his spot in such an eleven. The Frenchman’s primary strength is his skills on the ball, and he loves taking on defenders 1v1. Considering his 18/19 season as his sample size, he stood at 4.81 dribbles completed per 90 with a completion percentage of 67.4 in La Liga. On the other hand, Griezmann had a low 0.64 successful dribbles per 90 in the past season, with a completion percentage of 48.6. Moreover, the 23-year-old dominates in touches in the box, averaging 7.68 touches in the box per 90 as compared to Griezmann. Granted, the 29-year-old is a different kind of player altogether, and could potentially be better utilized in a more central role similar to the one he had with Atletico Madrid, but as things stand, Dembele is the one who provides the directness and explosiveness Koeman is looking for from his wingers. Moreover, his ambidexterity and pace mean he 1. is a threat from either wing, and 2. can pull off the unexpected every now and then, for example, his famous fake shot.
From a creative standpoint, Dembele had 4.65 Shot creating actions and 0.70 Goal creating actions per 90 in 18/19, while Griezmann stood at 2.08 SCA and 0.35 SCA per 90 last season. Moreover, Dembele can also occupy the wider areas and stick to the sidelines when needed – adding to his ability to create space without the ball. This option is unavailable with Griezmann, as he is more intent towards occupying the middle, and is therefore limited in that sense. Even when it comes to defensive actions, Dembele can come toe-to-toe with Griezmann, with 4.43 successful pressure and 0.54 tackles won per 90 in the 18/19 season, as compared to Griezmann’s 4.77 successful pressures and 0.64 tackles won per 90 last season. This is very impressive since Griezmann has a reputation for being a workhorse, and often contributes to Barcelona’s defence.
It is safe to say that Dembele stands out as a great option as a winger, provided he overcomes his injury problems. Although Ansu Fati has stood out since his emergence last season, it is important not to burden the 17-year-old’s shoulders with huge expectations, lest he crumble. New signings Pedri and Trincao are also very talented but are diamonds in the rough. Barcelona must have someone in the side who can provide that tempestuousness and dynamism that they often lacked the previous season, but all while knowing the expectations the Catalan giants hold, even of young players. Ousmane Dembele’s Blaugrana story hasn’t been great so far; injuries botted the pages, but this might be the season to flip the page and start afresh for both him and Barcelona.