Ousmane Dembele arrived at Barcelona with huge expectations and with a very meaty transfer fee on his head, but rarely lived up to his potential during a disappointing six-year spell.
The winger cost a whopping €105m from Borussia Dortmund in 2017, but made just 185 appearances in that time, before eventually departing for Paris Saint-Germain for less than Barcelona’s initial investment.
Indeed, the 37-times capped France intrernational will be remembered at Barcelona for one moment above all else that summed up his time in Catalonia. That came back in the 2019 Champions League semi-final first leg against Liverpool at the Nou Camp in 2019 when he found himself alone in the area after receiving a pass from Lionel Messi.
But with only Alisson Becker to beat, he hit a tame shot straight into the Brazilian’s hands. The Argentine superstar sunk to his knees and buried his head in the turf. It might sound unfair, but that moment encapsulates Dembele’s career at the Catalan club: a story of what might have been.
Barca subsequently capitulated at Anfield, losing the second leg 4-0 to the Reds, and lost the Copa del Rey final to Valencia later in the month. A fourth goal at Camp Nou would have made that comeback significantly more difficult.
If Dembele had scored, perhaps Barca would have won the treble. Instead, the team went into sharp decline.
LACK OF FOCUS
Signed for a huge fee of €105million plus a possible €40m in add-ons from Borussia Dortmund to replace Neymar in 2017, Dembele was under pressure from the outset. After a couple of bright performances, the 21-year-old suffered a muscle injury on his full LaLiga debut and was sidelined for three months. And just days after his return, he got injured again.
Stories of indiscipline were rife in those early days. Club officials were shocked to find takeaway boxes stacked up at Dembele’s house on one visit and were disappointed at discovering he would regularly stay up half the night playing video games with his friends.
Teammate Gerard Piqué once revealed that Dembele “always arrives late” and added that he needed to learn to be a footballer “for 24 hours”, not just when he was on the pitch. One late appearance for a team meeting resulted in a fine, but his lifestyle off the pitch and struggles with the language were greater concerns.
Despite some moments of genuine quality, Dembele often did not appear to be on the same wavelength as his teammates. His decision-making was poor and sometimes still is. When he was sent off for dissent against Sevilla in 2019, Messi told referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz that “he doesn’t know what he is saying”. At least he won’t have that problem in Paris.
REBIRTH UNDER XAVI
Dembele did enjoy brighter moments as a Barcelona player. When Xavi arrived as coach in 2021, the club’s legendary midfielder made it clear in his very first press conference to president Joan Laporta that the French forward was a big part of his plans. “His [contract] renewal is non-negotiable right now,” he said. “Dembele, if trained well, can be the best in the world in his position.”
After his contract ran down at the end of the 2021-22 season, Dembele did renew. The World Cup winner signed a new two-year deal and was a key component of the Barcelona side which won LaLiga last term. It was Barca’s first league title since 2018-19 and the Frenchman played his part: standout moments include a goal and three assists in a 4-0 demolition of Athletic Club in October and crucial winners in the 1-0 victories over Atlético Madrid and Real Sociedad in January.
His pace, explosiveness, excellent technique with both feet and powerful shooting make him a formidable forward, yet he remains unpredictable and prone to injury – even though he has admitted to being much more professional with his diet and conditioning these days.
There were 14 injuries in total during his time at Barca: persistent problems with his hamstrings, torn muscles and a knee issue which have seen him sidelined for an astonishing 777 days, according to TransferMarkt. That is more than two whole years.
Most of that time out happened before Xavi’s arrival as coach in 2021 and the former midfielder has praised Dembele’s attitude on a number of occasions during his time in charge. “He has been professional, even knowing when he is not called up,” he said in April last year. “He’s taking care of himself, he trains well and he’s positive with the group.”
Xavi’s influence definitely brought about a change in the winger and Dembele has produced much of his best football over the past couple of years, staying fit for most of that time as well. “From 2017 to 2021, I wasted time enormously,” the winger admitted last year in an interview with RMC. “I lost five years of my life.” And he added: “With Xavi’s confidence, I was obliged to stay.”
That was after signing his contract in 2022, but one year on he is walking away and Xavi understandably feels let down. “I can give you my assessment in the time we have been here,” the coach said last week following his signing for PSG. “We put our faith in him. It has been a big disappointment. We valued him a lot here.”
And it is not just his decision to leave which has upset Barca, but the terms of his transfer as well. PSG paid just €50million for the winger, but Barcelona will only receive around €35.4m of the total due to a clause in his contract signed last summer. The rest will go to the player and his agent, which makes you wonder if it was the plan all along.
The nature of his exit will not certainly endear him to the fans and despite his extraordinary ability, what he did on the pitch for Barca over six seasons – when he was fit, that is – was never quite enough either, particularly given the elevated cost of his transfer.
Like the miss against Liverpool, Ousmane Dembele’s time at Camp Nou is a story of what might have been.