Even by today’s standards, selling a player just a year after spending a then club-record fee on him comes off as madness.
There is no suggestion Barcelona are giving serious thought to parting with Ousmane Dembele after they forked out €105million last summer, a fee which could still rise with add-ons. But speculation has abounded he is off to a third club in three years after failing to set the world alight in his first season at the Camp Nou. The papers are suggesting he could be enticed by a move to the Premier League, with Arsenal reportedly a suitor.
The fee Barcelona paid may have been too high for a player who was then only 20, with just one season of top-level European football under his belt. He was not, by any stretch, nearly half as good as Neymar, as the relative prices for the two players would suggest, a comparison which was only ever going to weigh him down given he was recruited as a direct replacement for the departing Brazilian.
Philippe Coutinho‘s arrival perhaps also reflected poorly on him – the club broke his transfer record in order to get a player for a similar position, one who has since performed better in the famous Blaugrana shirt.
But Barcelona would be crazy to let him leave.
This goes beyond the mitigating circumstances surrounding his debut season – although there are plenty. Suffering an injury in only his third appearance, and then a recurrence four games after making his return, would be enough to derail most campaigns.
Throw in the fact he was a 20-year-old in a new country, a more demanding environment than he’d ever previously experienced, the weight of a transfer fee he had no control over, and the inherent pressure of being expected to produce week in, week out at a level worthy of Barcelona, and he was always going to struggle to impress.
With that in mind, Dembele hasn’t performed poorly. He created nearly as many chances per 90 minutes this season in La Liga (2.74) as he did in the Bundesliga last season (2.78), and is scoring goals at nearly the same rate (0.22 per 90 for Barca, compared to 0.26 for Borussia Dortmund). There’s been no alarming dip. He just hasn’t been able to hit top form yet.
To their credit, the club are well aware of the difficulties the youngster has faced, with club president Josep Maria Bartomeu responding to speculation over a transfer by acknowledging that the first season at Barcelona would be tough for any player, and confirming the young Frenchman is viewed as a long-term acquisition.
More than anything, however, fact remains that Dembele is one of the most exciting young prospects in football. Letting him hone that talent elsewhere would be a colossal error.
Even if he ends up having to play second fiddle to Coutinho or compatriot Antoine Griezmann, heavily linked with a move to Barcelona, the club would be better served having him in their squad. They need only see how a lack of depth has affected them in recent years, when turning to players like Paco Alcacer and Denis Suarez in order to give senior figures like Lionel Messi has cost them.
Messi was jaded for Barcelona’s crucial Champions League tie against Roma, who duly overpowered the Catalan side in the second leg to overturn a three-goal deficit. Even their unbeaten run in the league owed much to their Argentine talisman making cameos when the ‘B’ team should have been doing enough to win.
Dembele was often a starter for those fixtures, and thus it would be fair criticism to suggest had he played better, Barca may not have needed to turn to Messi off the bench. But he will only get better with time, and there are few better finishing schools for a young player than one involving training day in, day out with Messi and Luis Suarez.
Bitter rivals Real Madrid can offer proof for how vital young, talented backup attackers are, in more ways than one. In the 2016/17 season, when James Rodriguez, Alvaro Morata, and Marco Asensio were among the reserves, Madrid were able to rest Cristiano Ronaldo and other star players without sacrificing results, going onto achieve a league and European double.
On the flip side, with Rodriguez and Morata gone this term and Asensio promoted to the first team, the lack of quality backup ruined their league campaign from the very start, when Ronaldo was suspended.
Kylian Mbappé (19) has been involved in a goal every 90.9 mins for club & country at senior first-team level:— Scouted Football (@ScoutedFtbl) June 2, 2018
• 51 goals
• 32 assists
Ousmane Dembélé (21) has been involved in a goal every 130.2 mins for club & country at senior first-team level:
• 28 goals
• 28 assists pic.twitter.com/o0dimBww8Y
But more than anything, calling time on Dembele’s potential after one season seems like folly. One average season from a player of Dembele’s age, at the beginning of his career, is not enough to write him off.
Look at Manchester United, who sold Memphis Depay after just a season-and-a-half. The young Dutchman has responded by starring for Lyon this season and leading them back into the Champions League. Or Chelsea, who are seeing Mohamed Salah, Kevin de Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku all thrive at other clubs after letting them go.
There are plenty of similar cautionary tales. Barcelona cannot allow Dembele, and themselves, to become one of them.
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