Ousmane Dembélé is finally hitting his stride at Barcelona and we’re excited
Ousmane Dembélé might have made fewer than 40 starts for the German club, but he did enough in them to earn a big-money move to Barcelona in the summer of 2017.
A difficult first season in Catalunya sparked rumours of an early exit, but this season the Frenchman has begun to demonstrate how he could still be a very valuable asset to the Spanish league leaders.
It’s impossible to hide when you’re the subject of a €105million transfer fee, to the point that even an injury (or in Dembélé’s case, a series of injuries) isn’t an escape route from media attention.
After all, this was a man who went to Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena – Arjen Robben’s back yard – and scored the sort of goal Robben himself would be proud of.
Every time a Barcelona match is broadcast and Ousmane Dembélé isn’t scoring a sensational goal, people will – rightly or wrongly – have questions.
To misquote a great man, whenever Dembélé’s not on screen, all the other characters should be asking “Where’s Dembélé?”.
This situation means it’s handy to see the 21-year-old getting into his groove in his second season at Camp Nou.
It’s unclear whether the change has come in response to only earning a supporting role at the World Cup, sitting on the bench throughout the semi and final, or whether he has felt healthier after last season’s injury struggles.
However, whatever the reason, it hasn’t taken a long time at all for Dembélé to make up for last season’s struggles.
It took him just seven games to equal last season’s tally of four goals, and eight to surpass it, and he looked like a man on a mission the moment the first of those went in against Sevilla in the Spanish Super Cup.
The goal itself acts as a symbol for Dembélé’s career, examining the lay of the land and taking the most direct route possible to the very top.
Still, the greatest part of the goal is not the finish itself, or even the calm stutter-step to set himself for the finish, but rather the exasperation of goalkeeper Tomáš Vaclík.
You know you’ve done a good job when the opposition keeper looks up at you as if you’ve taken the sandwiches out of his lunchbox and replaced them with broken glass.
When the reaction is less “how did he do that?” and more “why did he do that?” you know it’s a good one.
Things would get even better, of course, and the former Rennes man proceeded to score the kind of goal Barça fans would hope for from any new arrival.
Having watched the likes of Lionel Messi and Philippe Coutinho last season, he’ll have known the importance of not just scoring goals but scoring goals which leave opponents swearing under their breath.
If you’re going to do something like that, there’s no better place to do it than in the first Champions League outing of a new campaign, and PSV Eindhoven were made to almost instantly rue their decision to go toe to toe with the best.
Going into the last 20 minutes, PSV must have thought they were doing okay to have limited their hosts to just the one goal. That was their first mistake.
Their second was looking at Ousmane Dembélé and expecting the 2017-18 version, rather than the new man who has emerged this season.
There’s a moment, as he begins to bear down on goal, where Jorrit Hendrix and Hirving Lozano simply pause. It’s as if the pair have been left buffering as Dembélé moves on to the next level, recharging themselves for the next battle before the current one is even over, because they’ve played this game before.
The finish is just extra gloss, but it shows a man filled with a confidence and swagger he lacked at times in the past; a man who enters a situation figuring out how he will score, rather than worrying about whether he might not.
Questions over Dembélé’s future might not disappear completely this season, because we all know how football works, but if he does end up leaving he wouldn’t be doing so as a failure.
Even on those occasions where he hasn’t found the net, like a performance against Villarreal which had manager Ernesto Valverde praising his stand-out display, he is clearly becoming an important asset to an already stacked team.
With Valverde’s team having already cruised into the knockout rounds of the Champions League, it’s terrifying to know there’s a man outside the usual suspects who can just flick a switch and become unplayable on demand.
By Tom Victor