What Barcelona want, they usually get, and Philippe Coutinho’s arrival was a long time coming. Had it not been for Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool digging their heels in last summer, the Brazilian would’ve been at Camp Nou much sooner but he’s there now and that’s all that matters. Costing upwards of £140m, Coutinho was presented to the media in a snazzy tracksuit top, thumbs up, pearly whites out and before long he was churning out the Barça DNA line. A fine addition to an already fine side.
Someone that’s become lost in Coutinho’s spotlight however – via the treatment table – is Ousmane Dembélé. The 20-year-old was signed for an initial £96.8m from Borussia Dortmund in the aftermath of Neymar’s surprise transfer to PSG, before a severe hamstring tear put the brakes on any progress. In his absence, Barcelona have somehow found themselves nine points clear in January, with Messi, Suarez & Co finding their feet under new coach Ernesto Valverde, but it’s easy to forget just how big a talent Dembélé really is.
“Football is about joy. It’s about dribbling. I favour every idea that makes the game beautiful. Every good idea has to last.” Ronaldinho Gaúcho undoubtedly met that criteria, and it’s only fair that he did considering those very words were uttered straight from his mouth. But it’s true. Did he fill those who watched him play with joy? Absolutely. Did he dribble with flair and panache? Always. Did he make the game beautiful? Completely.
While it’s easy to look back with rose-tinted glasses, this truly was the era of the dribbler. For all his talent, Ronaldinho simply headlined a list that featured Ronaldo Nazario, Zinedine Zidane, Pavel Nedved and Thierry Henry, in addition to the youthful guile of Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Kaka. Those willing to drive forward and commit defenders. Those brave enough to take the ball where others daren’t even dream of taking it. It’s no surprise that every player listed above went on to achieve great things in their careers, but fast forward ten years, what happened to all the dribblers?
Dembélé is just that. In 2016/17 he completed 105 take-ons in the Bundesliga, top in Germany and ninth across all Europe’s top five leagues. If that doesn’t sound too incredible consider that the next-highest Bundesliga player was Naby Keita down in 22nd. The Vernon-born forward also completed the most dribbles per 90 minutes last season (4.3) – second only to Neymar (4.6) which simply gave his credibility to replace the Brazilian an added boost.
More importantly, Dembélé was able to buck the trend of most young wingers and add end-product to his dazzling wing-play for Dortmund, creating the highest number of chances in their squad (63) in the Bundesliga, weighing in with 12 assists. He also provided the second-highest number of assists in last season’s Champions League with six. The only player ahead of him was, again, Neymar on eight.
Moving away from statistics, the 20-year-old is a beautifully aesthetic player to watch. Someone that gets your heart racing and off your seat when gliding towards goal. His slanted gait is reminiscent of Pelé and the (startlingly natural) ambidexterity he possesses makes him hugely difficult to contain – particularly in one-on-one situations. Despite his tall yet slender frame, the speed of his movement is frightening, darting from left to right and leaving defenders for dead with regularity. This without even mentioning his control which feels closer than a pair of conjoined twins.
His time at Borussia Dortmund was an extremely fruitful one, but Barcelona was always the dream. “I am very happy to be here. It has always been my dream to be at Barça,” he told the media shortly after arriving. “I’m conscious that I’m coming into the best team in the world with the best players in the world. My objective is to give the maximum for this club and for the team, and win as many titles as possible.”
Coutinho may be the name currently on Blaugrana lips but they would be ill advised to forget about Dembélé. Having the capability to play across the frontline, in a variety of formations, with quality to support his team-mates but also affect games individually are traits rarely found in football, let alone on the shoulders of a 20-year-old. He is far from the finished article and can frustrate with his risk = reward style, but along with Kylian Mbappe and maybe Marco Asensio this is a potential Ballon d’Or winning talent.
Developing under the genius of Messi and the calm of Valverde could be just what he needs to break his ceiling, with his return to full fitness timed perfectly as Barça chase domestic and European glory.