It says something remarkable that despite Pedri scoring an outrageously luscious winner against Sevilla and his coach, Xavi Hernandez, drenching the 19-year-old with adoring superlatives after the final whistle, Ousmane Dembele was, by a huge distance, Barcelona’s man of the match on Sunday night.
Bluntly put, the controversial, often difficult to comprehend (and previously injury-prone), World Cup-winning France winger gave a textbook display not only of how to leave your opponents’ legs in a knotty twist but of how to drive a title-hunting team to victory over a brilliantly organized and stubborn opponent.
Dembele set up big – and I mean mega-big – scoring chances for Frenkie de Jong, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Ferran Torres (three times), Ronald Araujo, Gerard Pique, bounced a shot about an inch over the bar, and then gave that assist/pass for Pedri’s glorious winner. In case you’ve not seen the match, those chances almost all required good – or excellent – saves from Sevilla goalkeeper Alex Bono plus, in Pique’s case, led to a header off the crossbar. Then there were the appealing “extras.”
To be kind for a minute, Dembele has seemingly long been confused about what “tracking back” might mean and completely repulsed by the idea that defensive teamwork might possibly apply to him. No longer, it seems.
Throughout Sunday’s match, Dembele put in a decent shift to make sure that Dani Alves’ right-back position didn’t get swamped, and then, in the second half, he barged two Sevilla opponents into touch while winning the ball to restart a Barcelona surge. Those moments brought a guttural roar of approval from the 76,000-strong crowd (average attendance this season: 52,000), meaning he’d conquered a rival far more stubborn and potentially threatening than auxiliary Sevilla left-back Karim Rekik.
The fact is, Dembele’s situation is one of the most remarkable turnarounds in a love-hate football relationship I can recall – never mind his controversial four previous seasons with the Camp Nou club.
It was fewer than three months ago that Barcelona asked him to find a new club in the January transfer market. It was on Feb. 7 (when Dembele didn’t even play in the 4-2 home win over Atletico Madrid) that Xavi had to beg the fans: “Please don’t whistle and boo Ousmane. I understand that there are fans who are angry and hurt, but now that the market is closed, we can’t shoot ourselves in the foot. He’s back in our squad and available for selection.”
The reference was to the fact that Dembele’s agent and advisers were making it very tough indeed for Barcelona to renew his contract, which ends in June, on reasonable terms. The 24-year-old was already marked as a “failure” by big sections of that club’s fan base and the booing/jeering during the Atleti win was merely when Dembele’s name was read out by the stadium announcer and when he trotted out to warm up.
That was just two months ago.
Wouldn’t you imagine that when Xavi asks, Xavi gets? Not only is he one of the best, most successful footballers in the club’s 123-year history, but he’s beloved and occupies the elevated position of “saviour” as their manager. So, the fans obeyed – right?
Wrong. A mere 10 days later, the ear-piercing whistling was startling when Dembele came on against Napoli after an hour, the Blaugrana desperately seeking a winner to take to Southern Italy. With a couple of thousand Neapolitans and a handful of neutrals in the 73,000+ crowd, it felt like 70,000 Barcelona fans were combining to say “get out of our team!”
It rattled the senses of a neutral onlooker; to be the object of that must be a pitiful experience. However, Dembele played brilliantly, nearly turning the match and, gradually, reducing the vituperative volume. “That’s it now, you’ve whistled him: you didn’t listen to what I asked you. But that’s enough,” were Xavi’s postmatch words, at which point a magical catharsis took place.
The crowd, on the manager’s say-so and nothing more, decided to give Dembele a second chance. Simultaneously, the Normandy-born prodigy decided to take that chance with both hands and, being ambidextrous, both feet too.
Get ready for a “surprise.”
Thanks to a combination of hamstring and knee problems as well as issues of being “out of favour,” Dembele has started a mere 11 times in all competitions this season. A horrendous stat. He’s only been on a pitch competitively 22 times. (By comparison: Barcelona have played 42 matches in season 2021/22.)
Since the “Eureka!” moment, when Xavi decided he needed Dembele’s frustrating but brilliant attacking play, the France international erupted into form and confidence, and the crowd decided to “pardon” him. He has started five of the past seven LaLiga matches and since Valencia away on Feb. 20, has produced eight assists and a goal.
Frankly, if his teammates had been half awake on Sunday, Dembele’s assist total would have swollen by three or four. As it is, not having played any club football until November and only racking up 846 LaLiga minutes, 13th-best in Barcelona’s appearance list, he’s got the league’s second-highest assist total (10) just behind countryman, Karim Benzema.
When Dembele left the pitch in the 90th minute against Sevilla, a great team he’d tormented all night, he received an uproarious standing ovation – at that moment, the pariah was suddenly the Prince of Camp Nou.
Just as a little aside, part of Xavi’s method to get his team playing the precise brand of football he’s fervent about has involved a huge amount of video tuition with the entire squad since the 42-year-old took over in November. Far beyond showing rival teams or direct opponents in video packages to instruct his players what he requires of them, he, and his staff will regularly conduct video montages of 15 or 20 “actions” they’ve put together to analyze and “mark” each of their own players.
If you caught Xavi on a good day in a quiet corner, he might admit to you that, for example, Pedri’s actions/decisions are “90% OK, 10% KO” and that the midfielder would lead the entire squad in approval ratings for the percentage of “correct decisions made” anywhere on the pitch. Every single player gets his “OK/KO” percentage split… for good or bad. The continuous assessment is aimed at continuous professional development.
The Catalan just might admit that for Dembele, it’s very often “10% OK, but 90% chaos!”
One of the things that have brought the entire, volatile situation to this point – with Dembele suddenly enjoying some of the best forms of his career; PSG and Bayern very keen on taking him on a free; Barcelona’s team utterly transformed when he plays; the Camp Nou back on his side; and nobody with the faintest idea whether he will stay or leave in the summer – is Xavi’s patience. He demands rigor, detailed precision, accuracy, and mental order from everyone else in his squad … but not Dembele. Not yet.
Xavi’s staff will tell you the reason: the 10% you get from Dembele wins you matches.
It helps, too, that Xavi has gutted the medical, fitness, and rehab departments at Barcelona. Suddenly Dembele is, for the moment at least, robust. The inside view (which is to say Xavi’s) is that Dembele trains superbly, is liked among the squad, and he also categorically wants to sign a new contract with Barcelona. Especially this version of the club. However, the off-the-pitch difficulty is whether the accountants at Camp Nou, who admittedly have a €1.3 billion debt to reduce and the players’ advisers can see their way to helping Dembele stay where he wants to be.
In the meantime, the rest of us must simply sit back and enjoy the exhilarating sight of a wondrous talent finally hitting his potential.
Note: This article is written by Graham Hunter and has been published at ESPN FC