Life can change in an instant and football frequently demonstrates that. Ousmane Dembele flirted with a Barcelona exit this summer and yet a month later is a crucial component of Ernesto Valverde’s treble-hunting team.
The coach appeared unwilling to put his faith in the French winger but after Dembele individually earned Barcelona two victories at the start of the season with his goals, he has carved out a place alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in the attack.
His Barcelona story started badly. Dembele endured a largely disastrous debut season in Spain after his €145 million move from Borussia Dortmund in 2017, arriving as the man expected to replace Neymar after his world record transfer to Paris Saint-Germain.
Before the forward had time to settle into the team he suffered a hamstring injury which sidelined him from September until January, during which time Valverde constructed a 4-4-2 system which helped Barcelona defend robustly and still gave the South American duo up front plenty of opportunities.
Valverde chalked Dembele’s injury up to inexperience and his frustration was exacerbated after the Frenchman returned to feature in just four games before suffering another hamstring problem which kept him out for a month.
Back again in February, Dembele’s form was erratic and one step forward was often followed by another backwards, with only a few stand-out flashes demonstrating why Barcelona bet so heavily on him.
One came against Chelsea, with a rip-roaring shot flying past Thibaut Courtois and earning Barcelona passage to the Champions League quarter-finals with a 3-0 win over the Blues at Camp Nou.
Two late goals against Villarreal proved another boost and showed he could be useful in hitting teams on the break, operating at a speed now beyond Suarez and even Messi.
Sadly it came too late to salvage the European campaign, with Valverde only giving Dembele five minutes in what has become known as ‘The Roma debacle’, as Barcelona threw away a 4-1 first leg lead to suffer a quarter-final knock-out in April.
During the 3-0 capitulation in the Italian capital, Barcelona’s line-up was screaming out for a player who could hit Roma on the break as they sought to batter their way back into the tie. And yet Valverde refused to put his faith in the former club record signing — since overtaken by Philippe Coutinho at €160m in January.
The Brazilian’s arrival is one of many reasons Dembele is enjoying a far better start to his second campaign. The price tag weighs less heavily now it has been surpassed, while winning the league and Copa del Rey double showed Neymar is not missed.
It gives Dembele breathing room and the chance to be his own player, rather than the man trying to fill Neymar’s boots. And if last season expectations were high, this time they started low.
“Dembele’s come back at his top level,” Suarez told RAC1 last week.
“This year, he’s more relaxed and he can bring us an enormous amount because he’s a player who can upset opponents and is very quick.”
It had been too much, too soon for a player who had only spent one season at the top level, with Borussia Dortmund, after breaking through at Rennes the year before. After a tumultuous summer, which saw France win the World Cup but Dembele largely stay on the margins after a couple of disappointing group stage performances, the player considered leaving Barcelona.
Spanish media reported his showdown talks with the club, who signed another promising winger in Malcom from Bordeaux.
Valverde decided to give Dembele a chance in the Spanish Super Cup against Sevilla and was rewarded when the No.11 produced a spectacular winner to bring the club their first trophy of the season. It was a goal that changed everything.
“We have high expectations for him. He has great quality and is here with us,” Valverde beamed after the 2-1 win over Sevilla.
“He took part and he scored a goal, which I think is something to be happy about. As the game went on, he got better.”
Suddenly, there were no more stories about him leaving, while complaints about his professionalism also dried up.
Barcelona used a 4-3-3 against Alaves, with Dembele fitting in on the left, as Valverde moved away from the 4-4-2 to make space for the winger, another sign the situation has changed. Although he failed to score in the 3-0 win against the Basque side, the 21-year-old was a danger and praised in the media for his performance, which just lacked a little precision.
That was just what he provided when nobody else could, though, in the 1-0 win at Valladolid which followed. As Barcelona laboured on the potato patch of a pitch at the Jose Zorrilla, only Dembele could provide the finishing touch, volleying home from Sergi Roberto’s header. Three points which might never have arrived otherwise were added to the Super Cup Dembele brought home earlier.
The forward struck once again in the comfortable 8-2 home win over Huesca, taking his tally to three in four matches while offering the skill, dynamism and sheer unpredictability which helps create havoc in opposition backlines.
Two-footed, defenders can never relax around the man known as ‘The Mosquito’, for fear of getting stung. Four of his seven Barcelona goals have come with his left, three with his right.
Dembele is finally living up to his nickname and paying back his price tag, one goal at a time.