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Ousmane Dembélé: A Career at the Crossroads?

In August 2017, Barcelona won the race to sign wonderkid Ousmane Dembélé for €105 million making him the joint-second most expensive player alongside Paul Pogba and behind only the outgoing Neymar in the money stakes.

Dembélé’s move to the Nou Camp was supposed to herald the start of a new era. Signed to replace Neymar, Dembélé was seen not merely as his natural successor but more as an alternative who would complement the talents of Messi and Suarez rather than attempt to compete with them as Neymar had seemingly done at certain points in his four-year tenure with the Catalans.

Eighteen months later and it is perhaps true to say that things have not gone totally to plan and the jury remains out on the 21-year-old from Vernon in France.

Not especially tall for a forward at 1.78m, Dembélé is nevertheless blessed with attributes such as dribbling and a great vision. Able to see the field ahead of him, as well as play building up from the back, Dembélé’s vision is one of the things that prompted Barca to lay out the money they did for him.

A product of the youth system at Rennes, Dembélé made his debut for Rennes first team at the age of eighteen and immediately made an impression, with comparisons being made to Christian Ronaldo at the same age. In less than one full season in the Rennes team, Dembélé made close on thirty appearances and scored at a rate of roughly one goal every two games.

The summer of 2016 saw Dembélé make a surprising move when he joined Borussia Dortmund on a five-year deal. It was supposed that Dembélé would spend another year or two honing his craft in France before moving abroad, but instead, he took the opportunity to go to Germany and once again had a very successful season.

An instant regular in the side, Dembélé made his Champions League bow as Dortmund made it to the quarter-finals before being eliminated by Monaco 6-3 on aggregate. The Dortmund team bus was bombed before the first leg, but Dembélé was uninjured and went onto to score in the 2-3 defeat.

That season, 2016-17, saw Dortmund and Dembélé battle through to the semi-final of the German Cup, where they met Bayern Munich. In the 74th minute, Dembélé scored what proved the winning goal in a 2-1 victory to set up a final with Eintracht Frankfurt.

In the final, Dembélé again scored as once more Dortmund triumphed by a 2-1 scoreline. This victory gave Dembélé his first honour in football, and to cap the occasion, he was also named Man of the Match.

The close of the season also saw Dembélé named in the Bundesliga Team of the Season.

So, to the summer of 2017 and Neymer decided he had enough of life in the Nou Camp and so Barcelona were on the search for a replacement who would not only fit in on the pitch but would also have the presence and charisma to appease the supporters who were unhappy at Neymar’s departure and Real Madrid’s dominance, particularly in Europe.

After protracted discussions, Dembélé signed a five-year contract in August of that summer. His contract reportedly contains a buyout clause of  €400 million which may in itself prove troublesome in time to come should the move show signs of not working out.

His career at Barcelona did not exactly get off to a flying start. Injured in his first start, Dembélé was immediately sidelined for four months. The fact that he was injured while attempting an unnecessary backheel went neither unnoticed nor appreciated at the time.

Making his comeback from injury, Dembélé again got injured in what was fast becoming a stop-start beginning to his Barcelona career, and he was out of action for a further four weeks. It wasn’t until March 2018 that he scored his first goal in a Barcelona shirt, but by the end of the season he had made 24 appearances in all competitions and contributed four goals as Barcelona won La Liga and the Copa Del Ray.

Dembélé’s first season at Barcelona was far from being an unqualified success, and questions were being asked of not just his ability but also his attitude. One year after his move and Dembélé was said to be aloof in the changing room, not training as hard as he could or should be, and making little or no progress in his efforts to learn the language.

Into the new season, 2018-19, and if not seen as a ‘make-or-break’ then it was considered as time for Dembélé to step up to the plate and start repaying some of the fortune splashed out on him.

So far on the pitch, Dembélé does appear to have made some progress with a better goal return and performances, generally speaking, nearer to those anticipated at the time of his move from Dortmund.

However, all has still not been well away from the field with his attitude again being called into question. In October 2018 he was dropped from the team and when he subsequently missed training due to a stomach complaint, the club was said to be unhappy and warned him as to his conduct and the levels of expectation and commitment that go with being a Barca player.

On the international front, his career also seems to have slightly stalled in comparison to his early days. Having made his debut for France in September 2016, Dembélé has been in and around the French side ever since. Yet he has not quite nailed down a regular and fixed starting spot and had a personally disappointing World Cup in 2018 as France triumphed in Russia.

Dembélé started two group matches in the tournament and appeared as a substitute in the third, but other than an 88th-minute substitute appearance in the quarter-final victory over Uruguay, made no further appearances.

With Barcelona already alleged to be looking at the possibility of moving Dembélé on, it would perhaps not be out of the ballpark to suggest that the young man is approaching a crossroads in his career.

Still only 21 years old, Dembélé knows he is approaching a critical period in his career.

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David Nesbit

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