Before Saturday's DFB Super Cup match with Bayern Munich at Signal Iduna Park, Borussia Dortmund's Ousmane Dembele received the Rookie of the Season award from the governing body's president, Christian Seifert. The unexcited look on his face in the photographs as the trophy was handed over is, however, notable.
His mind is already in Barcelona, some will claim, with the Blaugrana having renewed their interest in the wake of Neymar's dramatic exit, according to L'Equipe and Sport (h/t ESPN FC). Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc denied all knowledge of an agreement between Dembele and the Catalan giants on Sunday to reporters, however.
More likely is that Dembele—like the rest of the Bundesliga's players and watchers—was about as surprised by the prize as he would have been by Bayern winning the title last season. Having turned 20 in May, Dembele is far beyond age-group-based pats on the head. He is already the fulcrum of this Dortmund side, attacking-wise.
While Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's announcement that he now plans to stay with BVB in the weekend's Welt am Sonntag (h/t ESPN FC) is welcome, Dembele's possible departure is the one that may worry supporters the most.
The Gabonese frontman's return of 31 goals in the Bundesliga alone last season would have been tough to replace, with the small market of elite suitors realistically open to him, in terms of status and/or finance, a testament to that.
Aubameyang also played a big part in Dembele's successful adaptation to life in Nord-Rhine Westphalia, as a big brother-type figure to a player who was still 18 when he signed on the dotted line for BVB, and who had played less than a full season of senior football for Rennes. Yet in spite of Aubameyang's productive term, the pair's relative statuses have shifted considerably in the last 15 months.
Reading the statistical top line of six goals in 22 Bundesliga starts—respectable but not spectacular—without context, you might wonder how Dembele could ever hope to replace Neymar.
Check one column to the right, and a whopping 18 assists in league and Champions League combined gives you a better idea of what Dembele is about. Naturally, Aubameyang's sublime goal in Saturday's showpiece with Bayern was created by a devilish through ball from Dembele that highlighted his worth to Dortmund.
Of course, if you watched Dortmund even semi-regularly last season, you will already know exactly what he's worth. He arrived at Westfalen last summer in a swathe of excitement, having shone from the off with Rennes. Within weeks of cracking the XI in Brittany, he wasn't just the brightest young hope of Philippe Montanier's side. Dembele was Rennes' best player, full stop.
Still, anybody who says they expected him to dominate to quite the extent that he has in the Bundesliga would be classed as either optimistic or a liar. Yet Dembele did all that and more, which is why he's in the conversation for this titanic task of succession at Barcelona after just a single season with BVB. By the end of the season, he was Dortmund's key man, the attacking conduit that everything flowed through.
So, while keeping Aubameyang is a nice bonus, the departure of Dembele would be a tough one to swallow. By the back end of last season, Aubameyang's all-round influence on the game was becoming less and less, and that's not to diminish the importance of his goals for a single second. To sell Dembele at whatever price would mean starting again for BVB, certainly in terms of how they build in the final third.
It's little wonder that the club's CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said after Saturday's match that even a €100 million bid from Barca would be "not enough" to let him go, citing a recent example from a rival, as reported by goal.com. "I remember Kevin de Bruyne," he said. "He was the Bundesliga record transfer. When you see the years after, it was not the best transfer, though, as the team lost lots of quality."
You can see his point. Wolfsburg, the sellers in question, had a plan—and a fairly sound one, as they brought in a big talent in Julian Draxler. As Watzke said, it didn't really work out, and not just because De Bruyne and Draxler are different players. When a team talisman directs the orchestra with the personality and precision that De Bruyne (or Dembele) does, it's not unusual for things to sound out of tune when the leader, and thus the pitch of the symphony, changes.
How Dortmund deal with this is one thing. Quite another is how Dembele would cope with adapting to Barcelona, which is the ultimate in big leaps, and replacing a bona fide world star. German football expert Lars Pollmann believes he's going about building his career in the right way. "After correctly deciding an intermediate step would be best for his career as he was ready to leave Rennes last summer," he told Bleacher Report, "there's little doubt that Dembele is now ready to take on any challenge."
The most important point, as Pollmann alluded to, is that Dembele is calling the shots in his career, as he has since he was a teenager. He has a strong family around him—before his Dortmund move, Ed Aarons recalled in the Guardian how his mother Fatimata "told" him to stay and tough it out at Rennes when, disheartened about a lack of first-team action, he searched for an escape route.
Later, when things were taking off on the Route de Lorient, Barca first started to court Dembele, with sporting director Robert Fernandez present as he hit a hat-trick against Nantes last March. A €35 million offer followed soon after, per L'Equipe (in French). However, as Pollman told us, the teenager ended up making the right move, and he has reaped the rewards over the last season.
With that said, he thinks big. Rather than worrying about the possibility of losing his place in the squad for next summer's World Cup if things are tricky at Camp Nou, he's probably thinking that if he clicks with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, Didier Deschamps will have a hard time leaving him out of the XI come next June.
Yet Dembele has rarely shied away from the fact that he can see himself succeeding with Barca in time, and maybe now is the perfect moment. He suggested after France's end-of-season international against England that another season at Dortmund would be best, per sport.fr (in French). However, after the unprecedented transfer of Neymar, an opportunity has arisen and perhaps fate is calling.
The bottom line, ultimately, is that Dembele has underlined his star power at every turn, with bigger challenges pulling even greater heights from him. "He confirmed he has what it takes with strong performances in Dortmund's bigger games," said Pollmann, "like pitching in with the winner in the cup semi-final at Bayern Munich or the opener in the final against Eintracht Frankfurt."
The ability has never been in question. "Dembele has not one but two magical feet," Pollmann continued, "and incredibly loose hips that make him a nightmare for any defender. There's simply no telling what he's going to do at any point in the game, at any point on the pitch. His decision-making and defensive contribution still need some fine-tuning, but here's a 20-year-old with all the tools to be a world-class wide forward for a decade to come."
That—not just talent for today, but hope for a dazzling future—is exactly what Barcelona need right now. As for Dembele, he craves bigger challenges all the time. Regardless of timing, he always appears ready when he needs to be.