Ousmane Dembele has certainly suffered over the past year after his big-money switch to Barcelona. The £103.5m transfer fee – making him the world’s third-most expensive signing of all-time – was either going to hinder his progress or allow him a bigger platform to quickly justify it.
Having begun his footballing career in his native France, it’s interesting to see how youngsters transition when making the move abroad. It was seamless for him: someone who wanted to play as regularly as he did, flourishing at Borussia Dortmund among higher quality teammates in Germany.
So far though, his experience in Spain has been in stark contrast. Despite showing some signs of the ability which convinced last year’s La Liga champions he was worth the risk, they have been infrequent. If you add to that, two muscular injuries in quick succession which saw him miss an eye-watering five-month spell last season, perhaps it’s more understandable.
How detrimental have his injury struggles been?
That his first injury was self-inflicted speaks volumes for the issue at hand. During his first La Liga start against Getafe, he tried a needless backheel near the corner-flag and tore his hamstring. Doctors said the injury could have been brought on by stress, but it was still fairly innocuous and typified why there have been questions about his attitude since. Arguably rushed back too soon, he suffered a setback in January and was sidelined for an additional month.
With a huge price-tag hanging over him, fans and critics alike were eager to see how he’d fare on his return. Besides his showing against Villarreal during a 5-1 thrashing in May, there’s one memorable performance that comes to mind from last season – his Champions League display against Chelsea in their last-16 tie.
He scored an important goal to double their early lead, worked hard defensively and was dangerous in the final third. Linking up well with Messi and Suarez, it was the perfect way to silence his critics and progress. That just hasn’t happened. Instead, the 21-year-old has endured a frustrating spell of inconsistent form and indecision.
What about his country?
What makes it more disappointing, is these teething problems were occurring during a World Cup year – where his Les Bleus teammates flourished in Russia and won the tournament, while he spent most of it agitating from the substitutes’ bench.
It was not as though he wasn’t granted enough opportunities, either. During their group stage fixtures against Australia and Denmark, he started both and failed to impress Didier Deschamps. The dependable Blaise Matuidi filled in an unfamiliar role there, excelling while Dembele watched on.
Although he has retained his place in Deschamps’ post-World Cup squads to date, he’s been publicly warned. Questions over his professionalism, bad habits and general attitude have emerged in recent months – fuelling the fire that suggests he’s unsettled in Spain, with many clubs ready to capitalise on his situation.
Given his undeniable ability, Barcelona’s willingness to keep him is justified. The endless transfer speculation surrounding his future will not go away, but that comes with the territory. He scored four and created an assist in his first five appearances this term but has since slowed down again, for a number of reasons.
The midfield trio of Busquets-Rakitic-Arthur is good in concept, but it’s clear that it’d be improved by Philippe Coutinho’s presence there. He’s currently being utilised on the left-hand side in their 4-3-3 formation where Dembele would usually start – the pair have combined well previously. Malcom too has patiently been waiting for his opportunity centre-stage after a £36.5m move from Bordeaux over the summer, so it’s not as though Dembele is alone in having to carefully bide his time.
At international level, Deschamps has already shown that no player is particularly irreplaceable in his side. With so much attacking depth at his disposal, Dembele can flicker in and out of his starting plans regularly. Florian Thauvin, Nabil Fekir and Thomas Lemar are in a similar boat even with other talented youngsters are keen to earn the senior step-up, so it’s imperative he doesn’t take his place for granted. This past summer would have taught him that.
Now, all he can do is remain patient, continue to train and work hard, while performing consistently when given an opportunity to play. It’s easy to forget that he’s still only 21-years-old, so naturally his punctuality and perceived attitude issues should iron themselves out as he matures over time. With the spotlight constantly on him, this is precisely the acid test that Ousmane must pass if he is to justify such world-class potential at his feet.