Thomas Tuchel and Didier Deschamps played a key role in the rise of Ousmane Dembele. Ahead of his Champions League debut for Barcelona against Juventus, we were granted insight to the way they shaped his career, thanks to exclusive extracts from Ben Lyttleton's fascinating new book, Edge.
Ousmane Dembele's first touch was outstanding. He trapped the ball brilliantly, lifting his left leg above waist height and killing it dead. He was on the halfway line, and his next move was to knock it down the touchline and run past his marker to pick it up again. He was approaching the corner of the penalty area, at speed, when he did it again. He played the ball to the defender's left, and ran around the other side—known in France as a "grand pont," a big bridge—to leave his poor marker flustered and floundering. But would there be an end product? Dembele had just run 50 yards at speed and beaten two men. He looked up and fizzed in the most enticing cross imaginable: at perfect velocity and height, eight yards from goal, a little too far for the goalkeeper to reach.
His team-mate Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang only needed a small jump to power his header into the goal. The move had taken only eight seconds. In that time, you could see just how devastating Dembele could be. This was February 2017, and Aubameyang had just scored the winning goal in Borussia Dortmund's win over RB Leipzig.
Dembele had a natural gift for dribbling; he did so with grace, agility, lightness, fluidity and ease. In some ways, that run-and-cross against RB Leipzig could not have been more appropriate. His unpredictable way of playing is the antithesis of modern football.
I wanted to speak to Dembele, but Borussia Dortmund was keen to protect its talent. Instead, my colleagues at French TV station BeIN Sports sat down with him for an interview in February 2016 and, on my behalf, asked how he felt when I selected him as one of the best youth talents in world football for The Guardian's "Next Generation" feature in 2014, before he had even made a first-team appearance for Rennes. "I don't pay too much attention to it," he told them. "It's not an extra pressure for me, it's just what I do. I'm on the road I have to follow and I don't think about anything else. I train to get into the team and I'm enjoying my football here in Dortmund."
I went to Germany to meet his then-club coach at Borussia Dortmund, Thomas Tuchel, and to France to see national team coach Didier Deschamps. They were excited about Dembele and his potential. It's their job to confirm that into talent.
Deschamps does not like to talk about individual players but he made an exception for Dembele. "There are times when maybe during a game there's not much going on and then he will do something special," he told me. "It's about getting that quality to express itself over the long term. But as far as he's concerned, psychologically he considers himself ready. He's also exposed to daily demands at a club that's structured to deal with a player of enormous potential. He has got something."
Tuchel agrees. In training sessions, the coach would tell the players to only play one-touch passes, or two-touch give-and-goes, or do a spatial awareness exercise. "It's no problem for Ousmane. Within minutes, he gets it and I say, 'Hey please, what was that?' He adapts so quickly to everything."
This is crucial to success. In his short career so far, Dembele has adapted to all the contexts he has had to face. These have involved new teams, relationships, venues, levels of performance, cultures, countries, languages and levels of media attention. Tuchel and Deschamps understand this better than most: They have also learned to adapt to get their edge.
Before he left his job (at Dortmund), Tuchel spoke about his responsibilities as coach of these talents in a fascinating panel discussion with Stanford University's only German academic, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, and set out his role as a teacher. "I see myself more as someone who accompanies these talents, personalities and different characters," he said. "I'm responsible for the timing and the speed at which they learn. I set the stimuli that they need."
"To develop a player like Ousmane Dembele is practically an educational obligation," Gumbrecht told him. "So is the key ingredient for him now a sprinkle of humility, or would encouragement work better?"
"It definitely has to be encouragement," Tuchel responded. "But modesty also plays a part: to set yourself the daily task of working on your imperfections, to go about your own regeneration professionally so that you don't have to be substituted with cramp, as is the case now. It's important to show modesty with respect to your own huge, huge talent. To show everything in the stadium and to have no fear, regardless of how old or young you are; to take the first penalty; to still have an ice bath afterwards, even when it hurts."
Tuchel describes talent as an extraordinary gift that comes with a responsibility and an obligation to improve.
Tuchel believes we are all motivated in one of three different ways, an ABC measure that he has developed himself. We all have elements of each of the motivations—he defines them as Aggressive, Binding or Curious—but one is usually dominant. Understanding his players in this way can also help identify their best position.
As for Dembele, Tuchel is impressed with his rate of progression. "He can play at the highest level," he says. "There are still many traps out there, but they are not in football terms."
Differential Training has helped Dembele develop his game: The constant changes in each training session provide challenges that Dembele responds to every time. "The idea," says Tuchel, "is that training is more complicated than the game." When the game comes around, everything is a doddle by comparison.
It seems to work for Tuchel, and for Dembele. When they were together, it worked for Dortmund too.
I love watching Ousmane Dembele play: The languid ease with which he dribbles past opponents, combined with the ferocity and accuracy of his crossing, makes football look so simple.
In France, locals talk about where Dembele first played football, on the Ludoparc in the city of La Madeleine in Evreux, northern France, in reverent terms. The same hushed tones are used to describe Buenos Aires' Potrero Villa Fiorito, where Diego Maradona first played, Rio's Valqueire Tênis Clube, where Ronaldo started out, and the concrete slab of Castellane, Zinedine Zidane's first pitch.
From an early age, Dembele responded well to the challenges he faced. His coach for Evreux Under-13s, Gregory Badoche, would substitute him off, telling him, "Just because you're Ousmane, you're not guaranteed to play." Dembele, who even then would strike corners equally well with either foot, took it well.
When he moved to Rennes at 13, his mother Fati moved the whole family to be with him.
Borussia Dortmund was not the only option he had after ending his first season in 2015–16 as Ligue 1's Young Player of the Season. Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Bayer Leverkusen and Juventus were all interested. This was a critical point in his career. Make the wrong choice, and opportunities become limited, development stalls and dreams are put on hold. He made the right call. It's hardly a coincidence that his best form has come under the care of Thomas Tuchel and Didier Deschamps, two emotionally intelligent managers who believe in the individual player paradigm and understand how behaviour drives performance.
"On one side, Ousmane had a great education and the perfect support from his family system; on the other, he has an ego and pride because he is conscious of his talent," said another former coach at Rennes, Julien Stephan, in an interview with So Foot magazine. "Talents often have this profile, both determined and unpretentious. He can also ignore the context, so can pull off the same moves in front of 50 people, or 50,000 people, as he does not suffer from inhibition or tension."
So far Dembele has adapted positively to all of his challenges: being the best at Evreux, moving to Rennes, respecting his opponents, continuing to work hard, not thinking he'd made it already, staying hungry, moving to Dortmund when bigger deals were available. He even played well when L'Equipe reported that his agents had fallen out in an ugly row over commissions following his move to Germany. This is his form of resilience: Whatever the context, his response is impressive.
This is an edited extract from Edge - What Business Can Learn From Football (HarperCollins), out now.