Ousmane Dembele has endured a nightmare start to his Barcelona career. The French international, signed after Neymar’s sale to Paris Saint-Germain in a €105 million move from Borussia Dortmund which could rise to €150m with add-ons, simply cannot catch a break.
The 20-year-old winger has played in just nine games for the Catalan club this season and started only three, with no goals to his name and a sole assist. It is not what Barca or the player himself will have had in mind.
Tuesday night seemed like it might bring a new opportunity. Barca lined up with four midfielders and looked incredibly narrow against Chelsea in the teams’ Champions League last-16 first leg clash at Stamford Bridge. But with his side crying out for natural width, coach Ernesto Valverde turned not to Dembele, but to Aleix Vidal.
“Why Aleix and not Dembele?” Valverde said after the game. “Dembele has been out injured for a while, and for a match like this, coaches go with the things they know best.
“Aleix also gives us things, a different profile. When we are faced with a match like this, I rely on certainties. I had to respect what we have been doing, so I played Paulinho as a starter and I brought on Aleix Vidal for more depth. It wasn’t the time to experiment. That’s how I see it.”
It was the latest disappointment for Dembele in a season of setbacks and the decision to send on Vidal as he remained on the bench was clearly a blow for the youngster. After the match, he trudged disconsolately through the mixed zone at Stamford Bridge.
With two spells on the sidelines, three starts and only nine appearances in total, the move has not lived up to expectations so far by any means. But some of that can be traced back to what happened in the summer, before he had even joined Barcelona.
Back then, Dembele went on strike in order to force through his move from Dortmund and was then separated from the squad by the German club. That meant he missed much of the team’s preparation work and by the time he had joined Barca, he was not properly fit.
“There is no reason to make a big thing out of it,” Valverde said in January. “The fact is that he didn’t have a proper pre-season and we want to help him recover, little by little.”
The initial injury came away to Getafe in September, but what looked like a hamstring strain was complicated by tendon damage and to make matters worse, it came as he attempted a needless back-heel flick.
“When a player is going at that speed and does a back-heel, it can happen,” Valverde later said. “Maybe in a more experienced player it wouldn’t have. He’s a young player and he’ll recover.”
Dembele had to wait until January to make his return, but the injury flared up again on only his second substitute appearance (away to Real Sociedad) and when he came back again in the home match against Getafe, he gave the ball away 13 times in just 27 minutes.
There are also concerns over the player’s diet, with Barca having assigned the winger his own chef to ensure he is eating healthily, while he still cannot speak Spanish well enough to communicate with his team-mates.
Despite all of that, the club believe he will become an important player at Camp Nou, but Valverde is keen to exercise caution and with the winger still only 20, there is no need to rush. Given his injury problems and lack of a proper pre-season, however, it may be some time until the fans see the best of Dembele in a Barca shirt.