For two weeks this summer, Ousmane Dembele was a free agent. The French winger’s contract at Barcelona expired at the end of June and it wasn’t until mid-July that he put pen to paper on a new deal that will keep him at the Camp Nou until 2024. Xavi Hernandez never wanted to see Dembele play for another club.
It wasn’t so long ago that Dembele’s future as a Barcelona player looked to be as good as over. The winger had struggled through a series of injuries and had been questioned for a perceived lack of commitment to the Catalan club. More than once, Ronald Koeman spoke about Dembele’s bad habits in training.
A lot has changed since then, though. Dembele has been one of Barcelona’s best and most consistent performers since Xavi’s appointment as the club’s manager last year. He has given Barca a different dimension on the wing with the Frenchman a key figure in the Catalans’ new system.
Without Dembele, Barcelona’s possession play through the middle would run the risk of becoming congested. With the Frenchman as the out-ball, though, Barca are able to create space and overloads. Even when Dembele isn’t able to do something with the ball himself, his presence is often enough to open up pockets of space in other areas.
“He is different, special. There are not many of this type,” Xavi recently explained when asked to describe Dembele’s role for Barcelona. “He gives us a lot with the way we play. Not everyone has the ability to make a difference in the world of football and he does. He is involved and he shows it. I don’t know the Dembele from before November, I don’t know him. I am very happy with this one.”
Dembele registered two assists in Barcelona’s 4-0 win over Real Valladolid, bringing his tally of assists for 2022 to 13 – no player in Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues have registered more than the French winger. In the past, Dembele frequently lacked composure in crucial moments. Now, he seems more confident in his own ability in the final third.
Barcelona overpaid for Dembele when they signed him from Borussia Dortmund for €147m. That fee was inflated by the Catalan club’s desperation following the surprise exit of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain that summer and it placed unrealistic expectations on the shoulders of a player who struggled under so much pressure.
However, Dembele’s natural talent has always been obvious. The 25-year-old is comfortable with both feet and is capable of dribbling with the ball on either side. That gives Xavi a great deal of tactical flexibility with Dembele used on the left in the win over Real Valladolid just one week after he started on the right against Real Sociedad.
Xavi has led a comprehensive overhaul of the Barcelona squad since his return to the club as manager. A lot of money has been spent on new players despite Barca’s perilous financial position with Robert Lewandowski, Jules Kounde, Raphinha and others all settling in at the Camp Nou.
Dembele almost feels like a new signing too, but the Frenchman is merely thriving in an environment that has changed around him over the last year or so. Dembele also deserves credit for the changes he has made to his game, and perhaps more importantly his mindset, but his recent performances are proof of the player Barca had in their dressing room all along.
Few know what to expect of Barcelona this season. “”The aim is to win titles, the dream is the Champions League and I’m going to give my all to win this title,” Dembele replied when asked about his aims. “I’m going to work hard and I hope it’s a very good year for me and for Barca.”
Likewise, Xavi wants to target major honours, like the La Liga and Champions League titles, and Barca could achieve this on the basis of individual talent alone, but there are questions over how the new group at the Camp Nou will mesh over the course of the campaign. There are still some areas where Xavi will need to refine his team.
Nonetheless, there is an optimism around Barcelona that hasn’t been evident at the club for some time. Dembele’s growth as a key figure for the Catalans reflects this. While the Frenchman was once seen as one of Barca’s biggest problems, he is now one of the players driving the team forward.