Ousmane has got injured 9 times wearing the Blaugrana shirt, missing 49 games out of the 137 that Barcelona has played since his arrival to the Camp Nou. Many problems and little patience with Dembélé, who, with his physical problems, puts something very valuable at risk: his future.
The last game FC Barcelona played in the Champions League against Borussia Dortmund was one in which all culés were nervous because the ticket to the knockout stages of the most important European club tournament was at stake. The first half ended with a perfect result for Barcelona, 2–0 and with good feelings to score more goals for a Borussia sides that continued to make unforgivable mistakes. Despite the ideal scoreline, it wasn’t all good news, because, in the 26th minute, Ousmane Dembélé suffered his ninth injury wearing the Azulgrana shirt. According to the club’s doctors, the 22-year-old will miss at least 10 weeks and, if everything goes well, he would return in mid-February. But this injury is different. More than an important absence for the team, it is a decisive point for the future of Dembélé.
To discuss his future, let’s first take a look at the past of Ousmane Dembélé. Before FC Barcelona, the French international played for Stade Rennais and Borussia Dortmund. In his beginnings as a professional footballer, at Rennais, he didn’t miss a single match due to injury and he was able to play the last 26 Ligue 1 games in a row. In Germany, he had a couple of very minor injuries, being absent for only 1 match of the 34 Bundesliga fixtures with fitness-related issues. A player who was very healthy in his physical appearance – it was rare to see him injured. His romance with injuries began when he arrived to Spain, and they preventing him from reaching his true potential and stopped the growth of the youngster.
“Dembélé is affected by the situation. He is upset. I don’t know if his injury is in the same location as the other times. He was training fine. We will take care of him.”Ernesto Valverde
Currently, Dembélé has missed 49 of the 137 games that his actual club has played, and, if we include all the clashes that he’ll lose from here until he recovers, that will add up to approximately 60 matches in total. Abysmal. At this point, looking for a guilty would be a waste of time. We don’t have enough information about his therapies, routines or habits, and it would be disrespectful to blame the medical staff, the board or the player himself without knowing what’s behind all this. Now, what will happen to Ousmane? Will he be sold? Will he leave on loan? The future of Dembélé is a great mystery with injuries that not even Sherlock Holmes would be able solve. However, with all the background, we could predict some possible scenarios:
I. Dembélé stays for one more season
For me the best and most likely scenario, and the one every Dembélé fan wants to see. One more chance for the young Frenchman who came here to make his mark in this club, but who has been stuck in his own potential. The explosive winger, after recovering from his injury, will arrive on time for the UCL qualifying stages. Not only that, but when coming back he’ll also encounter a tough schedule, probably with Barça fighting very tightly for La Liga, and a plan that may not include Dembélé. Ideally, at the end of the campaign he will have adapted to the system and competition again and will have prevented costs any type of injury, gradually recovering his level and preparing for the next season. New year, new beginning. The past would have been forgotten. That’s when Dembele would exploit his entire quality and progressively become what people like me know he can become. Happy ending, but for this to happen injuries would have to respect him.
II. He goes on a loan in the winter or summer market
An outcome that has its advantages and disadvantages. Dembélé could try his luck in a short stretch of time to play in the Premier League or in Ligue 1, as plenty of teams would be interested in getting the forward on loan. On the upside, he could regain his confidence and be in an environment not as toxic as in which he is living with the Spanish media. He would have less pressure and this short exit could help him escape from the Barça bubble. If he goes out on loan, we still have good options to replace him in Ansu Fati and Carles Pérez. The only thing that could go wrong is that Dembélé feels rejected by Barcelona or suffers another injury during that period.
III. Sell Dembélé next summer
A sale would be a scenario that I personally wouldn’t like. Unless we signed him again, it would imply getting rid of him permanently. Offers won’t be missing. PSG, Chelsea, Manchester United…The French player have several favourable destinations, as anyone would bet on such a young high-quality footballer. Here the main loser would be FC Barcelona, who paid more than €100 million for him and would find it very hard to recover the amount invested in what was supposed to be Neymar’s replacement back in 2017. However, I’m sure that Dembele would adapt quickly to any club.
Analysing these 3 viable alternatives, I would say he’s expected to stay. The board and technical staff have declared their support to Dembélé with this new injury, as they all made huge efforts for him in the past. Many decisions will have to be made by manager and directive, but for now, new opportunities open up with Ousmane’s unavailability. Firstly, more minutes for Ansu Fati, who recently signed a millionaire contract extension and will be a fundamental piece in Valverde’s rotation policy as he continues to gain experience and mature. We’ll also see Carles Pérez more. He has played next to nothing in the last encounters, but his quality is there. A different type of winger, one that would be favoured by Pep Guardiola as he did with Pedro in his time at Barcelona. Carles knows how to open spaces and control his own speed, an addition of luxury for the Catalans’ bench. Dembélé’s absence is in good hands.
“As a player, Dembélé is impressive. Hopefully this year he doesn’t have bad luck with injuries as he did last year. When he needed him most, he was injured. However, he is a very good player that can give us a lot for the present and the future”Lionel Messi
Finally, what the number 11 should focus on at present is on his recovery, on complying with his therapies and building his confidence. In a situation that makes me feel helpless and sad, he needs more than ever the support of all fans and teammates. Whatever happens, we have to be patient, as the moment for Dembélé will arrive. Probably many of you have already lost patience and faith in the 22-year-old, but everything comes. You have to wait wisely. He has everything to be a superstar. A specialist with both feet, dribbling, explosive speed, good finishing, vision, and the ability to change the pace of Barcelona’s game. We only have one option. Trust Ousmane.
The numbers behind Frenkie de Jong’s revival at Barcelona
How has the shift away from a double pivot and into the right side of a midfield trio affected Frenkie de Jong’s performance and with it Barcelona’s?
Coming into this season, many believed the arrival of Ronald Koeman would help get the best out of Frenkie de Jong. In Koeman’s Dutch national side, de Jong had been one of the star performers, giving fans reason to be optimistic.
To open the campaign, Koeman implemented the 4-2-3-1 he had utilized with the Netherlands, which placed de Jong on the left side of a double pivot in midfield. While the former Ajax man played well, a more recent tactical shift away from the 4-2-3-1 has seemingly allowed him to reach new heights.
Starting with Barcelona’s away victory over Huesca, de Jong has played on the right side of a midfield three in the new midfield implemented by Koeman. In that more advanced role, the Dutchman’s freedom to roam forward has noticeably increased. He seems fresher, happier, and more impactful on the course of the match.
With that in mind, what do the numbers say about de Jong’s recent performances? What is he doing more of? What is he doing less of? How is this helping the side? Time to investigate.
Moving across and up
To start off, how about a little visualization of this role change? In theory, there should be significant differences between the positions de Jong was taking up earlier in the season compared to recent matches. Looking at where he played his passes from certainly backs this up.
It has been quite the shift. Not only has the Dutchman transitioned from the left half of the pitch to the right, but also higher up towards the opposition goal. In these last four La Liga games, de Jong has been operating much less in the defensive half of the pitch, plus one can see his territory stretching further to the attacking penalty area.
What about the areas de Jong has played his passes into?
Some more basic trends are visible. As the left pivot, one can see de Jong’s hot zone extending diagonally towards the left-wing. As the right interior, he seems to be passing to a more refined, central position, often in the right half-space.
An additional method that can highlight these differences is clustering de Jong’s actions. This allows us to see which passing patterns he repeated with the most frequency. For instance, his top clusters for passes played in the double pivot further reflect his tendency to play out to the left-wing.
That first cluster does show some activity higher up the pitch on the right, but outside of that, it is all passes played from the wide left or left-central positions. In comparison, de Jong’s pass clusters for the last four matches show him favouring shorter combinations from slightly to the right of the centre of the pitch.
The same can be done with the passes for which de Jong was on the receiving end of. Doing so provides further insight into his movement to get on the ball. Once again, the early season shows that left side dominance, and also just how far back de Jong was playing.
All of those lateral switches the Dutchman received in the defensive half, the short passes from the likes of Clément Lenglet, and the back passes from the attacking third all point to a deep-lying playmaker. Fast forward to his time as the right interior, and things look very different.
For one, we can see his passes received up and down the right flank. Additionally, there have not been as many deep passes received around the Barcelona box. Instead, de Jong has been getting the ball further into the attacking third, even in and around the penalty area frequently.
So, simple observation and data show the Dutch international phasing into a new role. Now that the basics have been established, though, the true insight has to be drawn from how this shift has made de Jong more productive. Given the new positions he is taking up, he must be contributing to different aspects of the game than he was before.
Adopting a new statistical profile
Moving to different areas and playing passes to different zones is only what is on the surface. To dive further into the Willem II academy product’s transformation, what matters most are the different actions he performs in these areas.
In order to investigate this, de Jong’s stats in matches on the right of the midfield three can be compared to his stats in the double pivot. To level the playing field between different metrics that occur at varying volumes, percent change will be utilized.
In this case, a positive change, or per cent increase, reflects an action he is performing with more frequency in the last four matches than in the opening sequence of the season. There are twelve key metrics which have increased by 10% or higher and five, which have more than doubled (over 100% increase).
Note: These stats are provided by Football Reference via StatsBomb. They have all been adjusted on a per 90 minutes scale.
Right off the bat, it is clear to see the increased freedom and dynamism in attacking areas. His non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes have shot up dramatically by 256%. Furthermore, he is carrying the ball into the penalty area far more often. Getting much more involved in creating goals — goal-creating actions are the two offensive actions leading directly to a goal.
The increases are not just on the offensive end, too. The Dutch international has been a more active ball-winner in his new role, with tackles, interceptions, passes blocked, and successful pressures all up. More specifically, his tackles and pressures in the middle third of the pitch have increased, reflecting the fact that he is now able to step up further on the pitch when out of possession.
In short, de Jong has been more active in the attacking penalty area, supplying a spark to create chances or get on the end of them himself, while also taking advantage of the freedom to step out and press with more intensity.
On the other end of the spectrum, what has de Jong started to do less frequently?
The most significant decrease has been to his switches of play, or horizontal passes across the pitch. As a right-footed player, de Jong was much more suited to playing these switches from the left side of the pitch because he could cut inside and ping the ball across.
Elsewhere, the inverses of his increasing metrics can be seen. By staying in the middle third more often and moving up to join the attack, de Jong has to take up fewer responsibilities in the defensive third.
Furthermore, there have been drop-offs in several metrics associated with playing deeper. The Dutchman is getting involved in fewer aerial duels, fouling less, and playing fewer long balls, which was also reflected by those pass clusters.
It might be surprising to see that his passes into the penalty area have dropped. Still, given that his carries into the penalty area and his shooting numbers have increased, this reflects the fact that de Jong is getting into these advanced positions with the ball himself as opposed to playing it in.
With these metrics taken into account, one can appreciate what has truly made de Jong so effective recently. The new role has given him more freedom and room to roam, but he has taken great advantage of that with brave runs, incisive play, creativity, and ball-winning.
While the sample size is still small, this new role seems to be the best one for Frenkie de Jong going forward. Not only does the 4-3-3 allow the Dutchman to shift up and make the most use of his strengths, but it allows him to play into the team’s success as well.
With a player of de Jong’s calibre, it should not be surprising that what seems to be his best span of matches at the club so far has yielded four consecutive convincing wins. That is the type of impact he was brought in to make, and it is brilliant to see it unfold.
Of course, there are more difficult tests in the future for de Jong in his new role, but from what he has shown so far, there is a lot more to look forward to.