FEATURE | Ousmane Dembélé: Barcelona’s mystery man

2022 has been some year for Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembélé. It has been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride for the Frenchman.

It had all started so well. “I’m enthusiastic about Dembélé, he’s a better player than Kylian Mbappé,” incoming President Joan Laporta said in December 2021. He was in the team, Xavi giving him a new lease of life, and his President was publicly praising him. A contract extension seemed a formality.

Only a few weeks later, he had been frozen out. “We began conversations with Dembele’s agent in July,” sporting director Mateu Alemany said. “Six or seven months have already passed since then in which we have talked and Barcelona have made different offers. We have tried to find a way for the player to stay with us. Offers have been made that were systematically rejected by his agents. Now, eleven days before entering the final phase of his contract, the club understand that the player doesn’t want to renew and that he’s not committed to Barcelona’s project. He and his agents have been told to leave the club and seek a transfer before January 31st. The sporting situation assessed by our coaches is that we don’t want to have a player who isn’t committed to the project. And not being selected is a consequence of this entire process.”

Despite that all, he ended the season with more assists than anyone else in La Liga. When a January move never materialised, Xavi thrust him back into the team and relied on him heavily. Deploying a system that relied upon pacey wide men, much like Pedro once was alongside him, where possible, Dembélé was the perfect fit.

Against Athletic Club in late February, he played his first home match since the saga began and in just over 20 minutes he changed the game, scoring once and providing two assists to turn a tense 1-0 lead into a 4-0 thrashing.

That was just the peak of a seven-match run in which he recorded nine assists and one goal scored. Dembélé showed every facet of his game that he brings to Barcelona. Barça are not short of talented attackers, but few possess the trickery and pace to take players on one-on-one and leave them for dead in the same way that Dembélé can.

Negotiations continued throughout the rest of the campaign. They have been brutal. From very public airing of laundry to Dembélé’s agent walking out of El Prat airport to face eagle-eyed Spanish cameramen while his phone flashed up with a call from “Leonardo PSG”. If ever a contract negotiation was a soap opera, it would be this one.

Yet, it raises a question: if everything has been so great for the Frenchman on the field, why has it been so difficult to get a deal done? At the very core of this debate is the fact that Dembélé simply has not been a reliable option at any point since joining in 2017.

Few argue about the raw potential of his talent, that is not in question, but his attitude and fitness most certainly are. 102 games have been missed by injury, plus a further two by suspension, compared to 149 games played since his arrival.

Numerous late arrivals to training sessions, reports of rehabilitation sessions missed after late-night parties and video gaming, and a diet of takeaway pizza have hardly combined to portray the 25-year-old talent in the best light. Thrust into the pressure of being Barcelona’s club-record signing at just 20 years of age is some pressure, and he struggled to live up to it.

The worst could be behind him. Speaking in February, Xavi said, “Ousmane’s contract is up in June and it’s a matter that’s between the club and him. I see him as being happy. He’s acting like a true professional. I’m very happy with him. Even when he knew he wasn’t in the squad, he’s been a model professional. I haven’t had the slightest problem with Ousmane. I’ve heard all sorts of things: that he hasn’t been professional and that he hasn’t looked after himself. I can tell you now that it’s the complete opposite, he’s looking after himself, is professional, has been training well, and is positive in and around the group.”

Dembélé, an incredible talent reaching the peak of his career in the form of his life, has finally put pen to paper on a new deal with Barcelona until 2024. A divorce would have suited nobody.

Xavi, who played his part in keeping the explosive winger at the club, has his man for another two years. He’ll be joined on the opposite flank at Camp Nou by Raphinha, who is set to be officially presented by the club on Friday.

Sam Leveridge

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