FEATURE | Ousmane Dembélé: Man of Mystery

2022 has a rollercoaster ride for France and Barcelona winger Ousmane Dembélé. It had all started so well. “I’m enthusiastic about Dembélé, he’s a better player than Kylian Mbappé,” said incoming Barcelona president Joan Laporta last December. He was in the team, coach Xavi Hernández gave new impetus, and a contract extension seemed a formality. Only a few weeks later, he had been frozen out.

“We began conversations with Dembélé’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.”

Despite that all, Dembélé ended the season with more assists than anyone else in La Liga. When a January move failed to materialise, Xavi thrust the 25-year-old back into the team, relying on him heavily. Deploying a system that leant on pacey wide men, Dembélé was the perfect fit. Against Athletic Club in late February, the Frenchman played his first home match since the saga began and, in just over 20 minutes, changed the game, scoring once and providing two assists to turn a tense 1-0 lead into a 4-0 thrashing. That was the peak of a seven-match run in which he recorded nine assists and one goal. Barça are not short of talented attackers, but few possess the trickery and pace to beat defenders in one-on-one situations like Dembélé can.

Negotiations continued throughout the rest of the campaign in the public eye. Dembélé’s agent famously walked 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 raised a question: if everything is so great for the Frenchman on the field, why was it so difficult to get a deal done? At the core of this debate is the fact that Dembélé simply has not been reliable at any point since joining the club in 2017.

His raw potential and talent aren’t in question, but his attitude and fitness most certainly are. By the end of last season, 102 games had been missed through injury, compared to 149 games played since his arrival. Numerous late arrivals to training sessions, reports of recovery sessions missed after late-night parties, incessant video gaming and a diet of takeaway pizza have hardly portrayed the 25-year-old in the best light.

The worst, however, could now 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 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. The coach will be hoping his man of mystery will become a little less of a conundrum from now on.

Sam Leveridge | GWFN

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