When Barcelona sold Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 for a world record €222 million fee, the entire landscape of the transfer market changed. Players started to command much larger transfer fees and, in some cases, much more than what they were worth.
Under such circumstances, Barcelona ended up shelling up €105 million to sign French winger Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund as a direct replacement for Neymar. The transfer fee could rise to €147 million based on performance-related add-ons.
At the time Barcelona signed Dembele, the Frenchman had been at Dortmund for just a year, having arrived from Rennes. The attacker had enjoyed a fine debut season, scoring 10 goals and assisting 21 more, helping Dortmund to a third-place finish in the Bundesliga as well as the DFB-Pokal triumph.
There’s no doubt that Dembele possessed immense potential. However, such an enormous transfer fee naturally weighed on the shoulders of the youngster who only had a couple of seasons of senior football under his belt at the time. Add to that, having to fill Neymar’s shoes, who was a third of one of the deadliest attacking trios in recent history, was never going to be easy.
And so, it began. Dembele made a bright start to life at Barcelona, grabbing an assist in his debut against local rivals Espanyol. But it went downhill from there on for the 22-year-old.
Just 29 minutes into his second appearance for the Catalans, Dembele picked up a hamstring injury and had to be taken off. The injury ruled the Frenchman out of action for the rest of 2017.
Dembele returned to action in January 2018, but after just a handful of matches, another muscular injury sidelined him for a month. The winger finished an injury-riddled campaign with just 24 appearances, managing 4 goals and assisting 9 more.
The following campaign was a little kinder on Dembele in terms of injuries, as he managed to take to the field on 42 occasions across all competitions, scoring 14 goals and creating nine. But even during the relatively successful season, the 22-year-old's hamstring issue had resurfaced on a couple of occasions, causing concern for Barcelona.
The 2019/20 term though has been the worst for Dembele. The 22-year-old had yet another hamstring problem right after Matchday 1 of La Liga and missed a stretch of games. Although he did return to action in November, the comeback was short-lived as another hamstring injury saw him ruled out of the season.
The 2018 World Cup winner with France made just nine appearances in 2019/20, scoring just a solitary goal.
In total, since arriving at Barcelona in 2017, Dembele has had nine different spells on the sidelines due to injury, five of which have been issues with his hamstring. Overall, the 22-year-old has missed a total of 80 games for the Blaugrana across all competitions due to injuries. To put that into perspective, the Frenchman has featured only 74 times for Barcelona in almost three years at the club.
To put it succinctly, Dembele has missed more matches due to injury than he has played for Barcelona since arriving from Borussia Dortmund.
Questions over attitude and professionalism
It is no secret that Dembele had been disciplined by Dortmund prior to his move to Barcelona, as he missed training with the team in order to force through a move away to Camp Nou. It has also been reported that the Frenchman thrashed the house he was renting at the time in Germany.
While it can be dismissed as a desperate measure from a player intent on securing a transfer, such problems are a recurrence with Dembele. Ever since arriving at Barcelona, the 22-year-old has been late to training sessions on numerous occasions, as per reports in Spanish media, which has been perceived as a lack of respect to his teammates and coaches.
“Ousmane knows, football is a privilege for every player, and I think he needs to focus more, and be more serious in some ways,” Barcelona striker Luis Suarez had said about Dembele during a press conference, reprimanding the Frenchman for his lackadaisical attitude and behaviour.
Then there was further criticism along the same lines from France manager Didier Deschamps.
“Ousmane has a bit of a habit of being late. Whether for his club or in the French national team, he should be a little more attentive to the things that are part of the day-to-day life of an elite-level footballer,” Deschamps said about the youngster in 2018.
During this season itself, Dembele was reported to have missed an appointment to undergo tests on his hamstring after the defeat to Athletic Bilbao on the opening day. This incident reportedly left the Catalans stunned and furious.
“Dembele knows he's made mistakes, mistakes which we all commit when we are young,” another of his teammates, Arturo Vidal had said in the aftermath.
Time to cut losses
Dembele is no doubt a player with great potential. His pace, trickery with the ball and the ability to score and create opportunities makes him an asset. However, at Barcelona, he has been an unreliable figure from his debut season. The fact that he has missed more matches than he has played during his time at Camp Nou should be an indicator as to why Barcelona cannot count on him.
Moreover, his petulant behaviour off the field seems to have become a habit of sorts. Having been repeatedly reprimanded by teammates and senior figures, Dembele has given no indication of mending his ways till date. The careers of Mario Balotelli and Hatem Ben Arfa are examples of what could possibly follow next.
It would be fair to say that things have just not worked out for Barcelona and Dembele. And with the club looking to invest heavily in their attacking department in the summer transfer window, the time is ripe for them to end their marriage with the Frenchman, cash in on him and invest the proceeds from the sale in strengthening their squad.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Josep Lago