It has been a tough ride for Ousmane Dembele thus far at Barcelona. Can he live up to his billing in the 2017-18 season? The Hard Tackle analyses.

The summer of 2017 spelt disaster for FC Barcelona. In their desperate attempts to secure the services of PSG midfielder Marco Verratti, the Barcelona board managed to infuriate Les Parisiens’ president Nasser Al-Khelaifi.

In an act of retaliation, PSG decided to trigger Neymar’s release clause and the player concerned took weeks to decide his future causing chaos and a state of perpetual uncertainty and angst inside the club. He eventually left in a ground breaking deal that saw Barcelona receive €222 million for the player’s services.

With little time left in hand, Barcelona needed to bolster their forward line with considerable talent and ingenuity. The name of Ousmane Dembele was brought to the fore and it was easy to see why exactly.

A then 19-year-old Dembele managed to score 10 goals and provide 20 assists to his teammates at Borussia Dortmund apart from tormenting European defenses with his mazy dribbling runs and quick feet. The plan to bring such an outstanding talent to Catalonia was given the green light.

Neymar's move to PSG left Barcelona shell shocked. (Photo courtesy - Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)
Neymar’s move to PSG left Barcelona shell shocked. (Photo courtesy – Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

The process was long, arduous and extremely complicated. Dortmund kept rejecting every bid that Barcelona threw their way and Neymar’s acquisition incomprehensibly inflated the market. In his attempts to realise his dreams at Barcelona and force Dortmund’s hands, Dembele stopped reporting to training.

He was duly fined and suspended and ultimately, Dortmund gave in. Ousmane Dembele arrived at Camp Nou for a reported fee of €105 million, making him the fourth most expensive transfer in football history. What followed next would make the perfect script for a bittersweet symphony.

Dembele got off to a relatively good start to the season in an impressive display against Juventus in the opening Champions league encounter of the 2017-18 campaign. The following month, in an away game against Getafe, he ruptured a tendon in the hamstring of his left leg and had to go through an operation which sidelined him for four months.

Dembele’s comeback was left till as late as January, when he picked up an injury in a similar area again and did not return to the pitch until the middle of February. Against Chelsea in the second leg of Champions League Round of 16 fixture at Camp Nou, Dembele found the back of the net for the first time in Barcelona colours as he struck a powerful shot past Thibaut Courtois.

Soon after, Dembele also scored his first goal in La Liga as 10-man Barcelona held Celta Vigo to a 2-2 draw in April. For the remainder of the season though, Ernesto Valverde was guilty of massively underutilising Dembele, especially in Barcelona’s Champions League run where they threw away a 4-1 lead to AS Roma in the quarter-finals.

Dembele did have a number of moments to remember last season. (Photo courtesy - Octavio Passos/Getty Images)
Dembele did have a number of moments to remember last season. (Photo courtesy – Octavio Passos/Getty Images)

In the dying stages of the season, Dembele started showing signs of his true potential with some sublime displays topped by the performance against Villarreal when he was absolutely untouchable.  With that being said, however, Dembele struggled to life at Camp Nou in his first season wherein keeping up consistency became a real challenge for the youngster.

Okay, first things first. Let’s start with addressing some curious questions and issues.

Ousmane Dembele is an outstanding raw talent that has bags of potential, just like Kylian Mbappe, to become the next crop of best footballers to rule the world of football once Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo retire. He had a couple of incredible seasons since he turned a professional, with Rennes and Dortmund, especially with the latter, where he became the most capped outfield player under Thomas Tuchel.

Dembele, being an ambidextrous footballer is extremely adept with both his feet being nimble, sharp and agile. He has tremendous pace to burn and likes taking on defenders, cutting in and drifting wide. He has a powerful shot in his left foot and can finish with his right one as well. Thus, to conclude, in Ousmane Dembele, Barcelona have a tremendous player that can scale huge heights if groomed well.

Now the question arises, if he is so talented, why was his first season at Barcelona underwhelming and why isn’t he mentioned in the same breath as Kylian Mbappe?

Dembele moved to Barcelona under precocious and dire circumstances. In order to fulfil his childhood dream of playing for the Catalan club, he stopped attending training sessions and went on war with the Dortmund administration, who were hesitant in letting him go.

He missed pre-season because he was signed extremely late for Barcelona and as a result, he took a long time to get used to the brand of football that is played at the club. If you look back at Neymar and Luis Suarez’s starts at Barcelona, you will notice a similar pattern where they took some time to adapt to life at Camp Nou, where football is viewed and played differently to most teams in the world.

The injury at Getafe put a spanner in the works for Dembele. (Photo courtesy - Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
The injury at Getafe put a spanner in the works for Dembele. (Photo courtesy – Denis Doyle/Getty Images)

You also need to learn the philosophy while getting to know the rhythms your teammates operate at. And to add fuel to the fire, Dembele ruptured the hamstring in his left leg and had to sit out for four months when he could not train or play football, thus hindering his integration phase.

A terrible injury is bound to take a psychological toll, and regaining confidence to try and attempt natural play on the pitch becomes a real challenge. One look at the career of Jack Wilshere and one will realise the point I’m trying to clarify.

Dembele made his comeback in January, but it turned out to be fleeting happiness, as he was once again injured in a similar region where he had to be operated and he could not come back to the pitch until Feburary.

When he did return however, he struggled with consistency which, in hindsight, is pretty natural since he spent most of the season rehabilitating. Valverde was criticised for holding back Dembele on various occasions with the manager reportedly not trusting him enough, especially in defensive duties.

This is one area of his game that Dembele truly needs to work upon: his pressing and tracking back duties. Valverde, being a very pragmatic manager who is more concerned with securing a tight defence than banking on attacking flair refrained from starting Dembele in many important games in the crucial stages of the season.

Can Dembele continue the good times after winning the World Cup? (Photo courtesy - Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Can Dembele continue the good times after winning the World Cup? (Photo courtesy – Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Perhaps, with Dembele at Stadio Olimpico, Barcelona could have taken the game to Roma instead of uncharacteristically sitting back and trying to soak the pressure, conceding three goals as a result and being knocked out of the Champions League miserably.

So, what’s in store for Dembele’s future at Barcelona?

The Catalan media seems to have found a new scapegoat in the Frenchman with reports of bids for him being entertained in the transfer window whilst also criticism of his first season making rounds on social media platforms.

Arsenal were reportedly interested in the services of Dembele and Barcelona are still studying bids for the player and if a large enough offer comes their way, they might consider offloading him. If sold, it would be a huge mistake by Barcelona.

One underwhelming season mostly laden with injuries and misunderstandings with the manager should not define him as a Barcelona player and he has all the talent and potential to succeed and make history at Camp Nou.

Dembele, on his part, needs to overcome the mental barrier that had been so obviously hindering his confidence for the majority of the 2017-18 season. He also needs to learn the language (reports of Dembele not understanding the language fully had surfaced in Catalan media), learn how to communicate better with his teammates and focus on improving his defensive contributions in training sessions.

In order to maintain his fitness, he must also keep a check on his irregular eating habits (another point that made rounds in media when Dembele got severely injured) and learn to value discipline, conditioning and proper nutrition. Because as we’ve seen throughout history, talent alone is never enough.

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