Ernesto Valverde waited 85 minutes before turning to Ousmane Dembele on his bench. By that point, Barcelona were 3-0 down to Roma, heading for arguably their most humiliating Champions League defeat ever, crashing out of the competition at the quarter final stage despite winning the first leg 4-1 the week before. This was a doomsday scenario for the Catalans and yet Valverde still didn’t value Dembele as a viable option.
Of course, the young Frenchman made next to no impression in the five minutes he was granted. Barcelona had no rebuttal to offer, they ran out of ideas, ran out of steam. Much of that, many believe, was down to Valverde’s reluctance to rotate his team. Dembele is one of the players he could have used more frequently, even if only to keep the likes of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and the rest fresh for the big occasion. And yet for much of the season, he has remained on the bench.
Dembele has endured a difficult first season at Barcelona after joining from Borussia Dortmund for a then club record £135.5 million in the summer. He sustained a hamstring injury on his debut for the Catalans in September, ruling him out of action into the new year. Since then, the 20-year-old has been chasing his tail, desperate to make up for lost time. If recent reports are to be believed, time might already be getting away from him.
The Catalan press claim Barcelona are open to selling Dembele this season, with Arsenal rumoured to be a potential destination for the French international. As they see it, the Camp Nou club have already written off Dembele as a flop and are now merely hoping to recover as much of the £135.5 million they paid for the player in the first place before his value drops any further.
This might be a little hasty from Barca, though. It’s true that Dembele is still somewhat raw as a talent. He is far from the finished article and didn’t warrant the £135.5 million fee paid for him. But that transfer fee was a consequence of its circumstance, with Barcelona desperate to make a big name signing, any big name signing, following the loss of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain. With time running out in the summer window, Dembele was the best they could muster.
Tactically, though, Dembele is a perfect fit for Barca. Stylistically, he isn’t the most typical of Barcelona players, with his first touch sometimes a little loose, his passing in tight spaces not up to the standard of his teammates, but he offers the Catalans something different, another dimension.
On the right side, he stretches the pitch, creating space for others through the middle. His billing as a replacement for Neymar has never done Dembele any favours, but in a way there are parallels to be drawn. Just as Neymar stretched the playing area on the left side, Dembele does the same on the opposite flank.
Perhaps a more suitable comparison for Dembele would be with Pedro. Under Pep Guardiola, Pedro should have been something of a misfit, at least going on his skill set as a player. However, he was crucial in getting Barcelona in behind opponents. Without Pedro down the right side, Messi, Iniesta and David Villa would have found things much more congested in the centre.
This is the role Dembele could play for Valverde’s Barcelona, and he has done so on occasion this season. His performance in the Champions League last 16 second leg against Chelsea looked to be a watershed moment for the Frenchman, capping an impressive display with a goal. As things stand, though, that was little more than a false dawn.
Valverde just doesn’t appear to trust Dembele, and going on recent reports he doesn’t seem to believe that the Frenchman will flourish into a player worthy of his place at the Camp Nou. Even if Dembele finds some form between now and the end of the season, there is a sense of ill-fate around the former Dortmund and Rennes player at Barcelona. Fairly or not, he might already be doomed to fail.
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