Ousmane Dembele's career at Barcelona started on a bright note. He made his debut in early September as a second-half substitute against Espanyol in the league. As he was being eased into the fray, Barca's fans started chanting his name. Cries of "Ousmane Dembele" echoed around the Camp Nou stadium.
He came on, looked lively, and in one of the closing acts of the game, he provided an assist for Luis Suarez to score Barcelona's final goal in a 5-0 rout. In the celebrations after the goal, Suarez sought him out for a conspicuously warm embrace.
And then, nothing. In six subsequent appearances, the player who arrived in the summer at Barca as the second-most-expensive signing in the history of football has failed to register a goal or assist. On the horizon, a difficult knockout tie against Chelsea awaits in the Champions League while he nurses himself back to fitness after two hamstring injuries. There is a sensation around Barcelona that he is an unknown quantity.
"Because the transfer market has inflated dramatically, we've lost a reference point for the real value of top footballers," says Marcel Beltran, a journalist with Spanish football magazine Panenka. "Barcelona has paid a lot of money for a player who is not fully developed but has promise. His transfer fee means the club has made a big bet on him, being so young. We've not had a similar situation like this before. It's a mystery whether he is going to do well or not."
Dembele, who signed from Borussia Dortmund last summer for a fee that could rise to €150 million, per Marca, had the misfortune to injure himself during his first league start against Getafe in mid-September. He required surgery on a torn hamstring. He picked up a second hamstring injury against Real Sociedad in mid-January that will keep him sidelined for three to four weeks, according to a club statement.
"People don't understand why he got these two injuries," says Jordi Quixano, a journalist with El Pais. "Until now he never had a serious muscle injury during his professional career. He didn't play much with Barcelona. The injuries could have been to do with his head. I'm convinced it's because of that—because of the pressure, his nerves, because he knows the money he costs. That's a lot of strain to put on the shoulders of a 20-year-old boy. If he doesn't have trustworthy people around he can lean on, if he's not well advised, it could become a problem.
"Dembele has to focus and think what he needs to be one of the best players in the world. He has speed, athleticism, dribbling skill. He can use both feet. He has many qualities, but he's at an age where he could really get lost if he doesn't do things right. He needs to take care of himself. He needs to sleep well, follow the instructions of his doctor, the club. He can't think he's king of the world at 20."
Sakari Orava, the Finnish surgeon who operated on Dembele's first hamstring injury shares Quixano's concern that stress might have contributed to Dembele's plight in an interview with El Mundo Deportivo. He admitted it was foolish of Dembele to start the match against Getafe when Dembele seemingly was conscious of a tight hamstring during the warm-up (h/t Marca). "Maybe it was a sin of youth not to say, 'I felt discomfort in that area before.' The pressure to which he has been exposed after his signing for the club could also have affected him."
Dembele is still a work in progress. Opponents easily riled him during his single season in the Bundesliga, which was understandable, of course, for a 19-year-old French kid playing in a foreign league for the first time. He had an irritable streak, says Stefan Buczko, editor-in-chief of Yellowwallpod, a weekly Borussia Dortmund podcast.
"When he joined Borussia Dortmund, he was very easily rattled by being fouled. He would react very negatively. He would shout at opponents after being fouled. He would very petulantly complain to the referee, and sometimes commit a revenge foul and go in the book for it. There were moments where teammates had to pull him back before he did something stupid. He was childish. The level of his tolerance isn't the highest, but it did improve over his time in Dortmund. He learned to calm down."
At Barcelona, Dembele also has the added strain of adapting to a club with a singular playing style. Thierry Henry, for example, looked "clumsy" while playing for Barcelona, according to Michael Robinson, a Spanish TV commentator and a former European Cup winner with Liverpool.
"We have to see if Dembele adapts to the rhythm of Barca, which has a specific style of play," says Beltran. "Already, we can see Philippe Coutinho is adapting well, but Dembele has played with teams who play with a different concept of play. Barcelona is a big club with codes that are very particular in terms of its style. To shine and to be an important player here, talent is not the only thing you need."
Dembele also arrived at Barcelona as a nominal replacement for Neymar. It's a big pair of boots to fill. Neymar, too, arrived quite young. He was only 21 years of age, but whereas Dembele had only six goals from a season in the Bundesliga on his CV, Neymar already had a significant body of work to refer to when he arrived at the Camp Nou in 2013.
In 2011, he led Santos to a first Copa Libertadores title in almost 50 years, since Pele's days with the club. A year later, he scored nine goals in 11 games for the Brazil national team. Off the pitch, he had already become the first Brazilian athlete in history to grace the cover of Time magazine. Few players relish the burning light of celebrity as much as Neymar. It will be a challenge for Dembele not to wither under its glare at a club like Barca.
Beltran stresses that Barcelona's objective is to blend Dembele into the team for the "medium term." He notes the gulf in age between Dembele and teammates Leo Messi (30), Suarez (31), Gerard Pique (31) and captain Andres Iniesta, who will turn 34 in May. Barca's fans, however, are not patient by nature, especially given the outlay on him.
"It's all very well for the club to say he is a player for the future," says Beltran, "but the fans' patience will be limited because the club have paid so much money for him. Here in Barcelona, it is difficult when the public has doubts. Barca is a complicated club for this reason. If he's given space to develop, he can triumph, but it's the great doubt."
The arrival of Coutinho is a mixed blessing for Dembele. The Brazilian playmaker will take some of the pressure off Dembele to fill the void left by Neymar's dramatic exit from the club last summer. It will allow Dembele more breathing space to establish himself in the team. Coutinho's presence, however, also adds competition for a starting place on Barcelona's gala XI.
Quixano reckons a fully fit Dembele would start once Ernesto Valverde has to pick his first-choice XI, with Coutinho and Dembele taking up the attacking wide berths in a 4-4-2 formation, at the expense of Iniesta and Paulinho, who has been a revelation so far this season for the club. The rumoured arrival of Antoine Griezmann would complicate matters. It's a puzzle that prompted former Barcelona defender Eric Abidal to ask rhetorically last week on the Spanish radio show, El Larguero: "If you want Suarez, Messi, Griezmann why sign Dembele?"
"I think there are concerns," says Beltran, "mostly because of Dembele's early performances for Barca, besides his injuries. He didn't completely convince. You could see his confidence was a little bit low. The few things he was brave enough to try didn't finish well. You couldn't see a clear connection between him and Messi. Let's see once he settles into Barca's style of play. Maybe he will fit better after he has three, four, five months of competition under his belt. Dembele's performances will condition the arrival—or not—of Griezmann."
It's up to Dembele to perform once he's fit. The club still believes in him, says Quixano. "The club has a lot, a lot of confidence in Dembele. Otherwise, they wouldn't have paid a base fee of €120 million for him. They believe he could become a great footballer. If he's fit, he gives a lot to the team. There isn't another player like him in Barca—a player who is that fast, a player who can dribble like Neymar did. They trust he will be a player in the future that will last for a lot of years because of the age they got him. He has a lot of margin to improve, and—I've also been told—he will be much more valuable when he's 25."
Until he gets a long stretch in the team, however, the jury is out. "People think it's still a melon that is about to be opened," says Quixano. "He's a very special player, but people don't know if he will be good or bad."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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