Despite appearances at the time of his arrival at Barcelona, Ousmane Dembele was never really a replacement for Neymar.
The young Frenchman might have been signed using the money collected from Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2017, he might have been signed to play on the wing, but it was unfair that Dembele was ever compared to the Brazilian superstar.
He was a player of great potential at the time of his £135.5 million switch to the Camp Nou from Borussia Dortmund, but Barcelona never had a plan for Dembele, nor have they ever had a grasp of what he is as a player. Three years later and it appears his time at the Catalan club is all but up, with Barca reportedly open to selling the 23-year-old for just £37 million this summer.
In theory, Dembele should have given Barcelona a different dimension. He should have given the Catalans vertical thrust in the same way Pedro did for Pep Guardiola’s great Barca side. While he has never been technically able enough to link up with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez like Neymar did, cutting inside off the wing to create passing triangles, his pace and directness should have been used to create space for others.
Dembele could and should have been deployed to stretch the pitch like Dani Alves did for many years for Barcelona. There’s a vast playing surface at the Camp Nou, but the former Dortmund man has never been truly able to make the most of that. The signing of Philippe Coutinho only added to Dembele’s problems - there was no clear way to start them both alongside the undroppable Messi and Suarez. Barca’s transfer strategy has been scattergun for a number of years and Dembele, as well as Coutinho, are emblems of that.
What should have been a dream move for a player of his talent and potential very quickly became a nightmare, although Dembele hasn’t been blameless in his own demise. France national team manager Didier Deschamps once said turning up late to training is “a little habit of his” and that is something Barcelona have also experienced.
Questions have been posed of Dembele’s commitment. One day, the winger didn’t turn up to training at all. Barcelona couldn’t reach him. Dembele would later reason that he had picked up a stomach illness and that his phone had run out of battery, but it would ultimately emerge that the player had instead been up through the night gaming and had slept in the following morning.
In his very next appearance, though, Dembele showed why many still want to persevere with him, coming off the bench to score a late equaliser in an away game against Atletico Madrid. ‘Dembele, on time’ read one newspaper headline the next day, but the tale of redemption was short-lived.
Even when the 23-year-old was deciding games for Barcelona, his rough edges were still clear. Dembele gives the ball away a lot. That in itself puts him at odds with the famed ideology of the Catalan club. He drifts in and out of games. Ernesto Valverde publicly questioned the Frenchman’s desire to track back and perform his defensive duties. Perhaps most disappointingly, Dembele’s game is just as raw now as it was three years ago.
Of course, injuries have been a factor in his struggles. He has certainly suffered from extremely bad luck on that front since arriving from Dortmund, sidelined for big chunks of entire seasons at a time. Even when he has been fit, the Frenchman has been denied the regular game time needed to build any sort of consistency or momentum. His Barcelona career to date has been extremely stop-start with more stops than starts.
The former Dortmund wonderkid certainly isn’t the first player to struggle with the expectations of being a Barcelona player. It’s not enough to just be a great footballer at the Camp Nou. Antoine Griezmann, for instance, is a great player, but has yet to prove himself as a great Barca player. Coutinho was one of the Premier League’s very best, but lasted just 18 months in Catalonia before being loaned out to whoever would take him.
It’s not yet certain what Dembele’s future holds, but it seems increasingly unlikely that he will still be a Barcelona player beyond this summer. Arsenal hold a long-standing interest, but their club record signing of Nicolas Pepe, another right-winger, last summer appeared to close that particular escape route. Manchester United could do with a wide man of his kind, but Jadon Sancho would seem to be their primary target to fill that position.
Sancho moving to Old Trafford could potentially open up a place in the Dortmund squad and a return to the Westfalenstadion, where Dembele marked himself out as one of the most exciting teenage talents in the game. It could revitalise him, spiritually as much as physically. The talent is still there, even to this day. There are glimpses of it every so often, but Barcelona will never be where Dembele will truly showcase himself. Whoever takes him on next must learn from where Barca went so badly wrong.