How Ousmane Dembele has overcome injuries, disciplinary issues and media scrutiny to become a key player for Barcelona
Neymar Junior controversially left Barcelona after four successful years during which he formed one of the deadliest attacking partnerships ever witnessed in football history, alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.
The Brazilian was a lethal weapon at the Nou Camp, using his incredible talent to wreak havoc on opposition defenses both domestically and in Europe. During his days as a Blaugrana, he scored a mouth-watering 105 goals and provided 76 assists in just 186 appearances, averaging 0.56 goals per game, and he was also rated the third-best footballer in the world at the Ballon d'Or gala in 2015.
Despite his progression and partnership with Suarez and Messi, Neymar decided to quit the Catalan capital, switching to Paris Saint-Germain in a world record deal worth £222 million in the summer of 2017, as the Ligue 1 outfit decided to terminate his contract by meeting his release clause.
Neymar was undoubtedly the most in-form superstar at the Nou Camp at the time he decided to leave, as evidenced by his unmatchable performance in the 'remontada' against PSG, where he led his side to a historic 6-1 victory at Camp Nou, overturning a 4-goal deficit in the Champions League.
Considering the role of the attacker in the club as well as his close connection with Messi and Suarez, it came as a huge shock to the Nou Camp faithful when Neymar decided to quit. With this unexpected and unfathomable departure, Barcelona were left with the insurmountable task of desperately replacing him with an equally gifted and productive talent who would the reduce the burden on Messi and restore the fans' confidence.
On this quest, the Blaugrana trimmed their options to a 19-year-old, relatively unknown but multi-talented Ousmane Dembele, who had signed his first professional contract for Rennes in 2014. Dembele was eventually lured from Borussia Dortmund for €105m plus €45m in add-ons and he was immediately handed the number 11 jersey worn by Neymar.
The French wonderkid was quite inexperienced and Barcelona were heavily criticized for signing an unproven player for that amount. Before joining the Liga giants, he played a paltry 79 professional club games for Rennes and Borussia Dortmund combined, scoring 22 goals and assisting 27 - a record that cannot be compared to Neymar who had already amassed over 100 club games with international exposure with the Brazilian national team before joining Barcelona.
All facts indicated that Dembele might not adequately replace Neymar and this became very obvious in his first season where he scored just 5 goals in 20 matches and failed to have a consistent run in the team during an injury-ravaged campaign.
During the 2018/19 preseason, Ernesto Valverde sent a clear message to Dembele to improve his game for the new term, especially his defensive contribution to the team. His agent was hurriedly summoned to Barcelona for his disciplinary issues; his trial had gone public and many judged his Camp Nou career over even before it had truly begun.
Immediately once the season started, it was clear that Dembele was going to be given more chances to prove himself and he started all of Barcelona first 6 games and scored 5 goals in the process. Clearly, the Frenchman took to Valverde's instructions, as evident from those games.
He adapted to the coach’s system, created a blossoming partnership with Lionel Messi and became a deadly threat on both flanks, utilizing his sheer pace and his ability to utilize both feet efficiently to dismantle opposition defenses.
His renewed confidence, bursts of pace and dribbling skills gave the club the edge they had lacked since the departure of Neymar. In 34 matches this season, Dembele has recorded 13 goals and 8 assists to his name as well as completing 80% of his total passes - something that highlights how well he is blending into the team.
His decisiveness in matches can be seen in his performances against Real Valladolid, his 90th-minute equalizer against Atletico Madrid, exquisite goals against PSV and Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League, and most recently, his performances and assists against eternal rivals – Real Madrid.
Dembele is undoubtedly a world-class talent who is beginning to adapt to Barcelona's style in his own way and in his own time, making huge statements with his performances and justifying the huge outlay on him in the process.
Barcelona were heavily criticized for the huge amount paid for his signature in 2017 but with his ascendency and decisiveness in games this season, Dembele may end up being a bargain for the Catalan giants and someone who could eventually replace Messi in Barcelona's attack.
On current form, Barcelona have unearthed a gem who would only get better with more game time. With the way Dembele is progressing, a future Ballon d'Or award might be within his reach. Simply put, the attacker has overcome his injury crisis and disciplinary issues and gradually, is becoming the type of player the Blaugrana want him to be.