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The pages are blotted with injuries, but Dembele’s Blaugrana story is far from over

Sudarshan Gopal

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Photo by Maja Hitij/Bongarts/Getty Images

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.

Ousmane Dembele 2018/19 vs Antoine Griezmann 2019/20. (Pie Chart from football slices.com)

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 GCA 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.

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The curious case of La Masia and the inability to produce elite strikers

Anurag Agate

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Photos via Imago

“My agent was approached by Manchester City, Getafe, Osasuna and Rayo Vallecano also, but Barcelona was our first choice. I just want to focus on my play and prove I am worth it.”

At the age of 15, Munir El Haddadi spoke casually of being approached by Spanish first division teams, Manchester City, and one of the biggest clubs ever, FC Barcelona. He was full of confidence, and why wouldn’t he be? 32 goals in 29 games for Rayo Majadohonda’s Cadete A side had attracted the top scouts in Europe to watch this Moroccan teenager.

He eventually signed for Barcelona and showed no sign of slowing down. Winning the UEFA Youth League with the Juvenil A, scoring 11 times in ten matches, becoming Barcelona’s third-youngest goal scorer his debut and nominated for the Golden Boy award were just some of his achievements. The future looked bright for this diminutive number nine.

Six years later, he had made only 33 appearances for Barcelona, scoring a total of five times. Two seasons on loan at Valencia and Alaves, yet again with 33 appearances each, were not particularly fruitful as he scored a total of 16 goals.

An incomplete dream. (Photo via Imago)

It wasn’t like Munir was someone who got injured a lot, neither was it a case of his profile not suiting the playstyle nor was it an issue of him not having the required talent and work ethic. Since then, three of Barcelona’s most promising strikers from Barcelona’s youth academies, Pablo Moreno, Abel Ruiz, and Alejandro Marquez, have all moved on to different clubs.

There are young midfielders, defenders, and wingers who are or, have been close to establishing themselves in the first team. For goalkeepers, the first-team career usually starts a bit late because there is little necessity for rotations. But strikers? They need significantly more rest than goalkeepers, and their career doesn’t take off late either.

Despite this, why have we not seen strikers even close to breaking into the first-team recently? To answer this, we must take a look at the ideal Barcelona striker, followed by what went wrong for strikers like Munir and Abel Ruiz. After that, we examine possible solutions to this, and to conclude the article, we have insight from some of the most knowledgeable people on La Masia.

The prototype of a Barcelona number nine

Recently, Barcelona have been linked with several strikers, including Erling Haaland, Sergio Aguero, and Harry Kane. Out of these, Sergio Aguero resembles the ideal Barcelona number nine the most. The low centre of gravity, quick change of direction, and incredible shot power with little backlift are all attributes that suit positional play. However, there will be players like Haaland or Kane whose sheer quality points towards them being a success at whichever club they play.

To understand what is expected from a number nine at Barcelona, we surprisingly have to look no further than the B team. Gerard Fernandez, nicknamed ‘Peque’, is an 18-year-old playing for Garcia Pimienta’s Barcelona B side. What stands out most is the extent to which he will try and get involved in the build-up. Often dropping back to create a situation of numerical superiority, his link-up play is exquisite. This is something that a Barcelona striker must-have. The team, practising positional play, will look to play their way through the opposition rather than attempt a lot of crosses or attacking only on the counter.

The next striker carrying the La Masia dream. (Photo via Imago)

Getting in the right positions and making the right runs makes all the difference. In a system based around counter-attacking or around using a target man, the physical aspect of a player makes a huge difference. In a team such as Barcelona, however, the positioning and reading of the game come first.

Being clinical is naturally crucial for strikers. It is also one of the toughest aspects. For a striker, regardless of the player’s profile, scoring goals regularly is essential. Lastly, one of the decisive factors for a striker, chemistry. There are few examples better than Luis Suarez to discuss this. His telepathic connection with Lionel Messi was lethal. Towards the end of his tenure at Barcelona, his goalscoring abilities, including his previously clinical finishing, were somewhat deteriorating, to say the least. The chemistry, however, was still present. This factor is especially decisive in teams like Barcelona, where timing, positioning, and linking-up well are make or break for strikers.

La Masia strikers and their progression

Munir El Haddadi once thought of Barcelona’s striker for the coming decade, left the club having little to no impact. He was scoring more than a goal per 90 at Barcelona B, but he could not even come close to replicating the same for the first team. Expecting him to score at the same rate would be unrealistic. Not only did his goalscoring rate get halved, but he failed to replicate the same clinical finishing.

Abel Ruiz was Spain’s youth team poster-boy at a point. He was the captain, scored goals regularly, was incredible in the build-up and in linking-up plays. For Barcelona, however, he was unable to replicate the goalscoring form. The Spanish youth national teams, though based on positional play, would rarely hesitate to play Abel Ruiz as a target man often.

Ruiz, too, failed to carry the mantle. (Photo via Imago)

But why was it that these strikers were failing to do well in a system that they had been trained to play in since they were kids?

Possible problems and solutions

Unfortunately, we don’t have access to Barcelona’s training or what exactly they teach the strikers. Not completely, at least. The following are two drills from the 2005 training manual used by Barcelona’s Juvenil A. Compiled by the revered Alex Garcia, there are some observations to be made about these drills which could give us more information.

In this drill, ‘ejercicio de tiro’, meaning shooting practice, the red lines show movement without the ball. The player has to run behind the goal, run to the green circle on the left, pass the ball, run, pick it up again and shoot it straight first, followed by a shot to the other post in the second repetition and a straight shot from the other side of the goal in the third repetition. What this exercise does is emphasize quick passing and shooting with minimal touches.

This practice has been chosen from the manual as it encapsulates the factors that the vast majority of exercises in the training manual do. As a result, the excellent linkup play and quick shooting observed in La Masia’s number nines make sense. When shooting on the first or second touch, one has to take into account their posture, in turn improving their balance.

Coming to the second example, we have an exercise which is titled ‘Quick shooting in pairs’. As the two players performing at a time have no interdependence, we shall examine only one of the players’ paths. Essentially, in this exercise, the player passes the ball, runs without the ball through a small circuit that emphasizes quick movement and agile side-stepping preceded by a quick one-two, and then shoots. Yet again, this exercise focuses on agility, balance, combinational play, and shooting with minimal touches.

As we saw from both exercises, there is a clear focus on certain aspects at La Masia. Granted, we don’t have the full picture, but it allows us to proceed with more data at our disposal.

Taking a look at these exercises, a reason for the low success rate of La Masia strikers at first-team level can by given. These exercises are all, to an extent, ideal. What that means is that they assume that the ideal positional play practised in training will be replicated on the field. That essentially is how training works, true, but the types of opposition Barcelona face vary.

Each player has to adapt according to the opposition, not only the strikers. It, however, is much tougher for strikers. That’s what makes players like Luis Suarez so special. His finishing and positioning in the box was impressive, but when required, he would be able to dribble and make a difference on his own as well.

Luis Suarez often caught the solo boat ride, which worked for him. (Photo via Imago)

Considering Abel Ruiz and Munir El Haddadi, their lack of directness in 1v1s might have been a major hindrance. This would lead to them often being suffocated in front of the goal. When this happens for many matches, a loss of confidence is very likely, leading to them missing many chances. This recurring cycle would lead to deterioration in the overall play.

One might wonder why this is a problem seen so commonly a Barcelona and not at other clubs. To an extent, strikers might be a position where physique does indeed make a huge difference. The physique argument is ever-present in Barcelona, especially when talking about players like Riqui Puig. What most people fail to take into account is the extent to which the tiny physique helps the player. But for strikers, it seems like the disadvantages of a diminutive physique vastly outweigh the advantages.

This doesn’t mean that players with a good physique must be prioritized. It just means that the number nine is where Barcelona might have to stray a bit farther from the ideal style of play than in other positions. In short, if the team’s positional play is excellent, a number nine produced in La Masia would do very well. In the case where the team does have technically gifted players, but the required level of play is still not achieved, the striker’s odds of being influential would be better with a better physique and if he is able to convert all sorts of chances, akin to someone like Erling Haaland.

Fan’s opinions

We asked three Culés who are very well-versed in what the Barcelona philosophy entails and who regularly watch Barcelona’s youth teams their opinion regarding this.

They were asked whether there is a need to change the prototype of a Barcelona number nine to suit the current footballing landscape and how they would increase the success rate of players breaking into the first team.

Navid

“Probably, it’s just something in the methodology which doesn’t give the strikers the final edge for the highest, highest level, which is, of course, a shame. To be honest, I don’t really know how the success rate could be increased.”

Navid went on to express the fact that the strikers seem to do well in the youth teams but fail to perform in the first team. Being unsure of whether or not the prototype has to be changed, he believed that we are more likely to see players who played as false 9s like Ansu Fati and Messi breaking into the first team.

Can Ansu Fati be the no. 9 from La Masia? (Photo via Imago)

“One possible solution could be to sell them with buyback clauses pretty early on. Maybe Juvenil A level or Barcelona B level to avoid stagnation which is seen often at the Barca B level.”

“I think that we should be more aware of the best strikers and as soon as they have problems at Barcelona B, sell them with a buyback clause. Usually, it looks like they need a new start where they have a new role and can develop from there.”

“Munir was excellent, not only at La Masia but also at Barca B. But at the same time, you need consistency as a striker.”

Single Pivot

“It’s a complicated question. I suppose that scoring as a youngster is fairly easy due to Barça’s superiority, but once they go to professional football, like Segunda B, there are many factors that come into play and a striker has a lot to do: drop deep, fixate the centre-backs, also score goals. And those who scored goals find it harder to find goalscoring consistency.

All eyes on Peque. (Photo via Imago)

I keep my fingers crossed with Peque, he for me, is the ideal striker. But changing a model for a position is difficult, I don’t know what could be done in that sense.”

Sam

“Looking at the top centre-forwards globally – Haaland, Lewandowski, Benzema, Lukaku, Lautaro, Vardy, Gerard Moreno, Kane – it’s tough to imagine someone with their profile coming from La Masia in my opinion. Someone like Benzema, Kane, or maybe Isak, with their positional sense and link-up ability, are probably the closest top forwards to an ideal Barça nine, but those guys are super rare with how they mix those qualities with exceptional skill in the more traditional poaching areas.”

“So, yeah, I would say, especially as Messi starts to phase out of the side and takes a large share of goals with him, it does seem like it would be beneficial for La Masia to start producing a different style of 9.”

“You can’t just say that we should be producing Halaands or Isaks cause those guys are super unique and rare, but I guess they can serve as a template. Maybe we start focusing more on poaching aspects during player development, teaching them those to run in behind (like Halaand’s signature run into the left side of the penalty area), and working harder to identify players with unique physical profiles (Isak’s mix of length but also agility, even prime Suarez’s blend of stockiness/muscle with good bursts of speed), as well as having more patience with them.”

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