As we edge closer to the Champions League return, one big interrogation has devoured culés’ brains, and that is Ousmane Dembélé. Can Barça and its fans fans count on him after a significant injury? What can we expect of him?
Rumours keep a football fan alive. Journalists love to speculate, and sometimes they are so stubborn that they take everything they think about as evidence for any case in football. For example, the journalists at L’Équipe, one of France’s biggest media, wrote defamatory words about Nicolas Anelka during the 2010 World Cup and they never apologised. Anelka said it in his new documentary on Netflix and Raymond Domenech, the French coach at the time, said that everything L’Équipe wrote was wrong.
The biggest clubs and players often suffer from these intense speculations that come out of the blue on a day-to-day basis. Barcelona is the most mediated club in the world, and their footballers are victims of it more often than not. The latest one to suffer from it is another young French starlet, and his name is Ousmane Dembélé.
Much like Anelka when he arrived to Real Madrid in 1999, Dembélé was a costly Frenchman who didn’t accommodate in the first few months of his Spanish career. Ousmane’s main problem, however, has been injuries.
From the first few games in 2017, Dembélé suffered a season-ending injury, and he has never fully recovered. This year has been a shambles for everyone at Barça and the 23-year-old has only participated in 9 matches in all competitions. But he is close to the return, or so rumours are saying.
Ousmane Dembélé is a great unknown | Photo by Imago
You can’t be sure with Dembélé. A few weeks ago, Catalan media reported that he wouldn’t make the cut until the hypothetical final of the Champions League. Today, it is rumoured that he will be available in case of emergency against Napoli and that should make him available for more minutes against Bayern, if Barça make it through the round of 16.
Dembélé is one hell of a player when fit. People cannot fathom how insanely surprising his talent is and injuries have erased everything he has done at Barça. From gifting the 2019 Supercopa de España to winning essential points in the league last year, passing by extraordinary goals just like the one against Spurs at the Camp Nou in the Champions League, last year was a season to remember…had he not gotten injured for the umpteenth time.
What can culés ask from a player that hasn’t touched the field since last November? Well, not much, but they can ask him to take care of his body while on the pitch, at least. Dembélé is the kind of player that loves taking risks. He takes so many risks when he dribbles around the pitch to open the play that opponents want to kick him. And when it’s not opponents kicking him, it’s him accidentally falling, like the Leganés game in January 2019.
It is undeniable that an in-form Ousmane Dembélé could be of great use for Quique Setién in the Champions League | Photo by AFP7 / Zuma via Imago
After all the setbacks, it is normal that culés don’t expect much from him. But if he’s on the pitch, fans can expect more width, more dribbles, more risks and more chances, and that would be a relief. Dembélé can be a hell of a ball-carrier when he’s given the confidence Quique Setién has in him. Nonetheless, putting so much emphasis on his return and turning it into added pressure is of no help to him and the team.
Also, expecting Barcelona to revert to the 2009 Barça squad with Ousmane’s addition is as unrealistic as it can get as well. Football is a game of eleven individuals trying to understand each other’s needs to succeed as a whole. One player usually doesn’t change much, even if Dembélé possesses the means to actually do so. He’s quick, skilful and unpredictable at times. He has a real chance to play in Setién’s system, but his needs have to be understood. Earlier, it was reported that he reduced the intensity of his training due to considerable loss of muscle mass, which is normal after a long-term injury.
Moral of the story is that you can expect change when Dembélé comes back, but just nothing over the top as he may be just coming back to play a few minutes in the Champions League after more than eight months sidelined. At the end of the day, Ousmane’s health is what matters, and he should be careful if he doesn’t want to put his career at further risk.
Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal
With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?
Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.
He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.
Tactical and Statistical Analysis
Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.
Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.
Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).
In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.
His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.
Where would he fit at Barça?
Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.
Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.
The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.
Should Barcelona pursue him?
There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.
There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.
He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.
While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.
On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.
Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.
Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.