What an astounding season Ousmane Dembele is enjoying at Barcelona. Critics vanquished, or on the run, he’s using almost every important game to impose his mercurial quality and scoring or creating goals without which the Spanish champions would be looking vulnerable and in a tailspin.
You didn’t realise? Come on. Pay attention.
The gamine French kid won Barcelona their first trophy this season with his sensational goal against Sevilla in the Spanish Super Cup, but that was just the beginning — an hors d’oeuvre. The main dishes: On a horrible carpet-tile pitch at Valladolid, where the turf popped up in chunks as if propelled by bionic moles, he cracked in the 1-0 winner; away to Real Sociedad, he put the ribbon on a 2-1 win when Barca had trailed in the Anoeta and looked in danger of defeat.
One trophy and six points wholly down to Dembele. Not bad.
On Saturday at Vallecas, he came off the bench, scored pretty instantly with a lovely half-volley drive that he dispatched like he might tuck a bottle of water away in a fridge compartment before closing the door — without a second thought or any difficulty whatsoever. Having trailed 2-1 — and struggled to draw breath, never mind equalise — this was a point and a half that flowed from Dembele’s boot. As soon as he made it 2-2, Rayo Vallecano were in pieces; the worst the Blaugrana were going to get was a draw, with a victory suddenly on the cards.
Then there’s the connoisseurs’ contributions: winning goals and clear-cut assists even the obtuse can spot and learn to appreciate. But let’s take two brilliant slashes of colour he daubed across the Camp Nou pitch, drawn from his rainbow palette of invention and anarchy: First, the 2-0 goal against PSV Eindhoven, and then his role in Barcelona going 3-1 up against Real Madrid in the Clasico 10 days ago.
In the Champions League match Barcelona won 4-0, Lionel Messi carved out another of his big-night hat tricks, so what’s the big deal about Dembele’s magic to make it 2-0? And, of course, Madrid were trounced 5-1 with this French box of tricks deftly wedging up the cross from which Arturo Vidal logged the fifth goal.
It’s that most significant of scorelines that — due to the fact that there have only been six occasions in 56 years where one or the other of the Clasico rivals has hit five or more against the other and Barcelona have registered, wouldn’t you guess it, five of them — has become a mythical “manita” (handful) around the Camp Nou.
But, wait! Dembele supplied that magical fifth, so who cares about the bit part he played in the 3-1 Luis Suarez goal? Right? Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Let’s get this sorted. PSV were fast, clever and threatened to score. When it was only 1-0 to Barcelona with 17 minutes left, there was a genuine chance of an upset. The chance of dropping two points at home on Matchday 1.
Dembele received the ball in a tight space, jinked between Jorrit Hendrix and Hirving Lozano and then left Dani Schwaab trailing, mouth agape, as he put a curved shot in off the far post. It killed the game, put PSV to bed. A crucial, crucial goal. The elite produce these moments.
More gold stars in the personal totting-up chart for Barcelona’s minimum €130 million investment.
As for the Clasico, if you didn’t watch it, were you in surgery?
At 2-1, Ernesto Valverde’s team was in a tizzy — tactically, physically and psychologically. Dembele was thrown on to exploit the vast gap between Madrid’s back three (a structure changed at half-time) and their rampaging three-man midfield.
His first touch on the ball was in an ocean of space into which he’d shimmied, his burst forward was at ramming speed. His choice of pass was exquisite and, thanks to Sergi Roberto’s cross, Suarez put Barcelona 3-1 up. Immediately postmatch, Julen Lopetegui admitted, “We were out of the game the moment it went to 3-1.”
Dembele was the match breaker. Again.
Oh, and by the way, were it not for his nicely flighted cross for Clement Lenglet’s header, away to Cultural Leonesa, Barcelona would have suffered one of their most embarrassing Copa deal Rey results in years. Again, his assist (in added time) broke a game and gave his employers not only a victory against a plucky third-division team, but the relief of avoiding a degree of humiliation.
Let’s pause and assess the other side of the case, the one growing in popularity.
So, why is it, you may wonder, that none of the Barcelona players bothered to celebrate Dembele’s goal with him at Rayo this weekend? Those readers who follow this club closely are probably cursing my name venomously, wondering who’s drugged me into writing this lavish praise. You may ask why there are persistent stories in parts of the Spanish media, where club-sourced stories are routinely seeded, that Barca are weighing up putting Dembele in a deal with Paris Saint-Germain to re-acquire Neymar.
In short, Dembele is a divisive, difficult and frustrating project.
For those of us who are neutrals, he’s almost a 100 percent guarantee to do something wonderful to bring us off our seats with our mouth involuntarily making the sound “ooh!” and “ahh!” Frankly, there’s too little of that in football today.
For us neutrals, too, there’s the comedy of watching grimaces from his manager, senior players around him and the sheer disbelieving delight on some opponents’ faces when Dembele seems to wrap one leg around the other, get confused about what his original intent was … and even what he’s doing out on the pitch today. Occasionally he gives you the impression his head is full of a conversation with himself: “Then later tonight we’ll get some Italian food in, change the cat litter, then listen to some Johnny Hallyday … oh … where’s the ball gone?”
What makes me mad, even madder than watching Dembele in one of his dozy, dopey moods, is the impatience of people. The kid does not have a computer for a brain. He’s one of those — and I’ve seen hundreds in my career — who are so good at certain things that they don’t have to develop some basics, aren’t required to think, to deduce, to self-counsel, to learn.
Now, suddenly, he’s on a Masters course. That’s not my turn of phrase, it’s Xavi’s.
I recall Xavi at the same age: talented but not studious, not soaking up information, a stranger to the gym, a guy who got by on the fact that he was sublimely gifted. Not, most definitely not, the guy who in due course would blossom into the smartest, most psychologically brilliant, hungriest technical midfielder in the world.
He needed time, he needed stimuli and he needed maturity. Those are things that Dembele’s fiercest critics are denying him.
I admit that I, judging from the outside, worry that the penny still hasn’t dropped for the young Frenchman, that he’s still blinded by his own achievements. Those goals, assists and match-turning contributions are ultra-seductive. If, as an arrogant player, you’re not listening properly, they whisper in your ear: “My critics are jealous, the older players in the team fear me, the coach is too conservative. If I just play my game and produce my magic then I’ll be feted, they’ll bow to me and I’ll be king of the world.”
But it’s far, far too soon for people to give up on this gem. He may have been born with a lackadaisical, immature outlook on his career, and he may even prove all his doubters (many of whom I respect) to have been right. Xavi’s verdict is better than anything I could produce.
He recently told SoFoot: “Dembele will need some time. Barca is like a final exam for a footballer. Why? Because Barca play in barely 30 meters of the pitch. Dembele has a lot of talent, he is very fast, but here, he is not going to have the boulevards of room to sprint into that he had at Dortmund or Rennes. He had more space, so more time there. He’ll have to learn to think faster, in a few thousandths of a second.
“That’s when we’ll see whether he has the mentality. He must say to himself: ‘I am a Barça player.’ You have to be mentally strong, to have convictions. There are average players who spent 15 years at Barca, because they had a character. And there are some excellent players who did not do anything because they couldn’t handle pressure.”
The master has spoken. Let Dembele, and his impatient critics, take note.