From Barcelona boos to Xavi's key man, is World Cup stardom next for Ousmane Dembele?

By Sports Desk September 21, 2022

Everything appeared to be heading towards Barcelona and Ousmane Dembele parting on poor terms after a largely unsatisfactory association.

"Either he renews, or we look for an exit," Xavi said in January, fielding the latest in a series of questions about the winger.

With Dembele failing to agree to a new Barcelona contract at the start of 2022, director of football Mateu Alemany was even more forthright, declaring: "He must leave the club immediately."

Fast forward eight months, and the unpredictable attacker has emerged as a key cog in a revitalised Barca side, one tipped to compete with Real Madrid after making an unbeaten start in LaLiga.

Having been in the cold since Euro 2020, Dembele is also back in the France squad for their upcoming Nations League matches, with his sights set on claiming a spot in Didier Deschamps' party for the World Cup in Qatar.

Football loves a redemption arc, and that of Dembele in 2022 is up there with the very best in recent memory.

On the eve of his France return, Stats Perform looks at Dembele's journey from €105million flop to the creative hub of Xavi's side, asking whether a World Cup flourish is next for the winger.

Injury woes and the long shadow of Neymar

Barcelona's failings following Neymar's 2017 move to Paris Saint-Germain have been well-documented, with Dembele long viewed as the ultimate personification of the shambolic recruitment policy during Josep Maria Bartomeu's tenure.

The Blaugrana parted with an initial €105m for Dembele, who recorded 30 goal contributions (10 goals, 20 assists) and created 100 chances in his lone season with Borussia Dortmund.

That substantial fee saw Dembele, a talented yet raw 20-year-old, touted as a replacement for Neymar, a pressure that appeared to weigh heavily on the Frenchman; he needed over seven months to score his first goal in LaLiga, finally finding the net at Celta Vigo in April 2018.

While Ernesto Valverde led Barca to a domestic double in 2017-18, Dembele's own contribution was limited by a series of injury setbacks, which represented a sign of things to come.

 

Dembele made just 17 league appearances and 12 starts in his debut campaign, having been ruled out until January 2018 after suffering a serious hamstring injury within a month of his arrival.

In three of Dembele's first five campaigns at Barca, injuries ruled him out for 100 days or more. Between the beginning of 2017-18 and the end of 2020-21, meanwhile, he started just 36 per cent of the club's league games.

On the rare occasions Dembele did stay fit, meanwhile, his output was negligible in a side increasingly reliant on Lionel Messi's brilliance. Dembele's tally of 17 league goals and 14 assists in his first four seasons hardly represented value for Barcelona's mammoth investment, meaning the winger was considered ripe for a sale as the club's economic position worsened.

From contract rebel to key man: Spearheading the Xavi revival 

Even LaLiga's casual observers must have grown tired of discussions over the economic "levers" being pulled by Joan Laporta's regime. But before the sales of future TV rights and production companies, shifting Dembele was touted as a means by which to balance the books after the January arrival of Ferran Torres.

With a loan move for Adama Traore leaving Barcelona's forward line well-stocked, the message could not have been clearer; if Dembele would not agree to fresh terms, he was surplus to requirements.

But with Traore struggling on his return to Spain and Torres regularly deployed centrally, Xavi decided to utilise Dembele once the January transfer window closed. He was richly rewarded after reinstating him on the right of Barca's attack.

Since Xavi took charge in November 2021, Dembele's 17 assists in all competitions is bettered only by Messi (22) and Kevin De Bruyne (21) among players in Europe's top five leagues, while his 15 LaLiga assists during that time is a team-high.

Dembele also leads Barca's charts for chances created (63), chances created from open play (52) and touches in the opposing box (126) under Xavi in LaLiga, finally combining his menacing dribbling ability with genuine threat and creativity.

 

And Dembele's 68 dribbles completed in that time – also a team-high – show he has not sacrificed the individual skill that attracted Barcelona's attentions five years ago. 

Three months on from Dembele being booed by his own supporters during a Europa League clash with Napoli, Xavi said: "When he has not been involved, we have noticed."

The former midfield maestro was right. Barcelona won two-thirds of the league games Dembele started last season, and 47.8 per cent of those he didn't.

That impact meant Dembele's belated contract renewal, finalised in July, was received with enthusiasm by everyone at Camp Nou, with the winger subsequently going from strength to strength.

The tonic to Deschamps' blues?

If some thought the arrival of Raphinha might threaten Dembele's place in Xavi's side, he has made them eat their words at the start of the new campaign.

Having tallied the most assists (13) and expected assists (9.2 xA) in LaLiga last season, Dembele has recorded four league goal contributions since the August restart (two goals, two assists), forcing his way back into Deschamps' thoughts.

By the end of August, Dembele had been involved in more shots (15) as a consequence of ball carries than any other player in LaLiga, and his dynamic, unpredictable style may be just what Les Bleus require.

 

Dembele was used sparingly at Euro 2020, with Antoine Griezmann preferred alongside Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe as France won just once in four outings. However, it's easy to see why Dembele's ability to hug either touchline might appeal to Deschamps, offering him tactical flexibility when several other options appear compromised. 

Griezmann's lack of game-time at Atletico Madrid has been subject to much debate in recent weeks, while Kingsley Coman is out of France's latest squad through injury. Benzema's own injury scare, meanwhile, will no doubt have sharpened Deschamps' mind on the need for a plan B.

With France failing to win any of their first four Nations League games this time around, Dembele's Barcelona revival may have come at the perfect time.

Should Dembele carry his club form onto the international stage, potentially contributing to the first successful World Cup defence since Brazil's 1962 win, his 2022 will surely go down as one of football's most emphatic comebacks. 

Related items

  • Giroud breaks France's all-time scoring record Giroud breaks France's all-time scoring record

    Olivier Giroud etched his name into the France history books as he became Les Bleus' all-time top scorer after netting against Poland at the World Cup.

    The Milan striker equalled Thierry Henry's 51-goal record with a brace in a 4-1 win over Australia in his nation's World Cup opener, leaving him one shy of the outright benchmark.

    That made Giroud, aged 36 years and 53 days, the second-oldest player to score a double at the World Cup, after Roger Milla, who did so in 1990 for Cameroon aged 38.

    Giroud claimed the record outright with the opening goal in the round-of-16 clash against Poland, latching onto Kylian Mbappe's pass to fire Les Bleus ahead.

    The former Chelsea and Arsenal striker would likely have not started for Didier Deschamps' side if it had not been for pre-tournament injuries to Karim Benzema and Christopher Nkunku.

    Instead, Giroud and Kylian Mbappe have been tasked with carrying the attacking burden as France aim to defend their World Cup crown.

  • Bento hopes Neymar fit to face South Korea Bento hopes Neymar fit to face South Korea

    South Korea coach Paulo Bento hopes Neymar is fit to play his team in their World Cup last-16 clash with Brazil, even if he concedes it would better for them if he was absent.

    The Taeguk Warriors caused something of a shock by reaching the first knockout round of the tournament at the expense of Uruguay, with South Korea scoring a dramatic winner against Portugal on matchday three.

    Brazil await in the last 16 and there remains some doubt over the fitness of talisman Neymar, who injured his ankle in the Selecao's first match of the tournament.

    Neymar's involvement will be determined in training on Sunday, and Bento hopes he is ultimately passed fit.

    "It would be hypocritical if I said that it's better to play against Neymar than without him, but to be fair, I always prefer the best players to be on the field. If not, we hope it's not because of injury, that's for sure," he said.

    "It will be up to the coach, Tite, to decide whether he's in the starting line-up if he's fit to play, and we'll design the best strategy to play against a great national team that is full of balance and adding more and more talented players."

    Nevertheless, Bento clearly feels South Korea's chances of causing an upset have not been helped by FIFA.

    The Portuguese coach vented his frustration at the governing body scheduling games just 72 hours apart, particularly given the emotional exhaustion from their turnaround against Portugal.

    "Unfortunately, we don't have much time to train, because 72 hours is too little, I doubt any team can do that," he added.

    "After physical tiredness, and the emotional fatigue, we let the players rest [on Saturday] and only trained this morning, and of course that's a burden for the team.

    "We have an additional burden compared to Brazil because they changed their line-up in the last game.

    "They did something we couldn't do in the last game and honestly speaking, I was watching the 2018 World Cup and after the group stage, I do not remember seeing games played after 72 hours. The spaces between games was longer.

    "In my opinion it's not fair to play every 72 hours, it's something inhuman, it's something FIFA intends to create less conditions for those who already have less conditions, but we need to accept it if it's FIFA's decision.

    "It's difficult to play very a great team such as Brazil, who in my opinion they are the favourites, and if we add this burden, our task will be very difficult."

    But as irritated as Bento was by FIFA's decisions, he certainly is not worried about motivation.

    "I'm a realist. I conveyed we have a tough task ahead of us, but we have to try," he said. "If they needed me to motivate them for a last-16 game at the World Cup, they'd be in a bad spot.

    "What they showed already shows they are motivated. I get more motivation from them than they get from me."

  • Brazil coach Tite wishes Pele good health in 'difficult moment' Brazil coach Tite wishes Pele good health in 'difficult moment'

    Brazil head coach Tite recalled how he was "shaking" when he first met Pele, as he wished the three-time World Cup winner good health.

    Pele was hospitalised on Tuesday, though his daughter said a day later there was "no surprise or emergency" pertaining to his condition, with Pele also describing it as a "monthly visit".

    It was later reported, though not officially confirmed, that the 82-year-old had been moved to palliative care as he was no longer responding to chemotherapy treatment.

    The hospital treating Brazil's record scorer described his condition as "stable", while Pele issued a statement to say he remained "strong, with a lot of hope".

    Speaking at a press conference ahead of the Selecao's World Cup round-of-16 tie against South Korea, Tite shared a memory of meeting Pele for the first time.

    "He's probably the only person where I was shaking when I greeted him," he said. 

    "Speaking from the bottom of my heart, it was a very emotional moment for me... I didn't even know what was going on... Someone said, 'go and hug Pele'.

    "I stopped, started shaking, hands sweating, heartbeat racing. I said, 'wow, I'm going to have opportunity to greet Pele.' He is the person who represents the human aspect.

    "Health, Pele, health. That's all I can give you. It's a difficult moment."

    The Santos great underwent surgery to remove a tumour from his colon last year, and has been in and out of hospital since.

    Kylian Mbappe, Harry Kane and Vinicius Junior are among those to have sent messages of support from the World Cup in Qatar, while former Brazil international and Tite's assistant, Cesar Sampaio, also added his well-wishes.

    Sampaio – who began his career at Santos, albeit several years after Pele had retired – recalled having the opportunity to play with him.

    "I also had the blessing of meeting Pele," he said. "When I was at Santos, I had the chance to play with him, it was something even more than what Tite said, to be able to be with him on the pitch was so difficult because of what he represents.

    "Regardless of your religion, we ask you please send him a prayer and positive vibes. He influenced my development as a man and a human being."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.