We’re a week away from being rid of a complex, frustrating talent amid a complex, frustrating debate about a complex, frustrating time at a complex, frustrating football club.
And it’s hard not to count the days.
Two very interesting tidbits have come out that both make perfect sense, in recent days. In the first, a class journalist, Moises Llorens, Tweeted that rather than changing teams, Dembele needs to change agents. The second is current first team manager Xavi being quoted as saying, “There won’t be a better offer than the one you have. Take it or hit the bricks.”
It’s difficult to think of anything else about the Dembele situation, from the initial transfer to everything that has transpired since, that makes sense. Let’s begin at the beginning.
Clink and clunk
FC Barcelona paid 140 million Euros for one of the most dynamic young attackers in world football, a player that nobody knew, really, what to do with. Some thought he would fill the Neymar role, others thought that surely for that much money, he’s coming to score bags of goals.
Nobody could have predicted that he would be stuck into a stagnant offense, a player whose game is fast movement with the ball at his feet, being asked to learn to play a more … deliberate (yeah, let’s go with that) game. Then he tried a fancy backheel to impress the supporters, ruptured his hamstring and that was that.
He was never, ever going to be the player that Barça was asking him to be, because no manager was ever going to be able to allow him to be that player. Not on a team with Messi, not on a team with Busquets, not on any Barça team imaginable, though it would have been fun to watch him on Rijkaard’s team, with Ronaldinho.
The way Barça used Dembele is like if you were trying to drive a screw with a hammer. It’s never going to happen. The transfer, as with those of Coutinho, Griezmann and De Jong, didn’t make sense. All four players are considered to be “failures,” all for the same reason, at a combined cost of the riches of Croesus.
He’s broken. Now what?
We should begin by saying that players don’t choose to be injured. What player would? Injuries are rarely a player’s fault, unless they do an Ever Banega, where they run over their own foot at a gas station, still one of the most impressive feats in football history.
There is a weird assumption that Dembele somehow injured himself, brought the injuries on himself, or wanted to be injured. He’s even blamed for his injuries. Nobody is blaming Pedri for his injuries, or Fati for his. Nobody blamed Messi for his injuries back when he was clunked on the regular. It’s odd that Dembele is different.
Anyhow, he got injured, had surgery, came back and broke again. In the same spot. More work, more rehab and he came back from Qatar looking like he had been doing CrossFit instead of rehab work. And he broke. Again. Came back from that, and broke. Again.
It was at this point that some folks, dummies with blogs and stuff, started to wonder whether Dembele was being mishandled. You don’t drive or maintain a Ferrari in the same way you do a Volkswagen. Training, preventing maintenance, pre and post warmup are all considerations, particularly in a football world where everybody does the same drills and stuff.
In came Koeman and Dembele played almost a full season (absent 10 days for a minor hammy knock) for the first time since he joined Barça, and it was weird because of his injury history. But clearly, somebody was doing something right. Then he went off to join the France NT and came back with a knee injury. The good news? It wasn’t the same hammy. And off he went for surgery and rehab.
We never consider how players feel when injured, unless they’re our faves, but we should. Those of us who play at sports and injure ourselves, should wonder about those injuries and what we did. Young athlete bodies can deal with astonishing amounts of abuse. Want to live on Twinkies and cola? Rock on. One of the fastest bicycle racers I have ever competed against subsisted on Taco Bell. Stuff just breaks.
The joy of the knock
It’s odd how almost happy people were and are to cite Dembele’s injury history, as it that’s evidence of anything other than terrible luck and mismanagement. “He can’t keep fit. Wheeee,” is a weird thing. So is, “He can’t keep fit, so good riddance,” especially the way the list of Barça frequently injured players is a long one.
Every discussion of Dembele includes, at some point, “He’s injured all the time,” even as recent history argues against that.
And part of that approach is underrating his abilities. To be clear about this, he’s two footed, runs like the wind and is smart (in his own way, like Alexis Sanchez and others) on the ball. He can score some goals, but facilitating others is his real game. Whether the club should have spent 140m for a playmaker they weren’t going to give the ball to is another question entirely. But you can’t honestly doubt his talent, even as people who assert that De Jong will be brilliant once he is properly used, deny such a possibility for Dembele.
Grown men acting like children
In January, when TantrumGate kicked off, a few of us said that put paid to any possibility of the player staying at the club. “Send him to the stands!” “He was no good anyhow!” Taking your ball and going home is no way for a top-flight football club to comport itself.
In Paris, Mbappe was leaving on a free, to Real Madrid was the commonly held notion. It was only a matter of time. PSG didn’t threaten to send him to the stands, make statements in the press about him and his agent or anything of the sort. They just stayed calm, treated the player with respect and then threw a small nation’s GDP at him. And he stayed.
Xaviball took off like a rocket when Dembele returned to the lineup. Was it the only reason? Nope. But only the deliberately obstinate would deny it was one of the key reasons. Playing only a fraction of the season, Dembele led the league in assists, throwing in balls to the likes of De Jong and Aubameyang. Imagine what he might be able to do playing with a Lewandowski.
When Xavi put his foot down and said he would be playing Dembele, good things started to happen. And the club finished second, which is a trophy for a team that in full honesty, isn’t very good when you consider the level that it needs to be. A manager realized what a board didn’t and couldn’t. Good on Xavi. And in wanting to keep Dembele, Xavi understands the value of this version of the player, who is also, now, an effective defender and ball winner.
Agents and bad actors
In all of the years of my football addiction, I can’t think of an agent representing his client more poorly than Dembele’s. He took a player at one of the biggest clubs in the world, who was a starter for that club and the apple of the manager’s attacking eye, and turned him into a pariah who supporters would like nothing more than to see the back of, even given his on-pitch effectiveness.
That’s putting in some work.
The agent was banking on big clubs all wanting — and for good reason, given his talent — a chunk of his player, so much so that he failed to account for reputation and perception. Dembele is considered a risk by any and all top clubs. So a salary that should be a no-brainer is a risk because well, he hasn’t been This Dembele long enough to be considered This Dembele. Most peoples’ image of Dembele is on crutches or in rehab. Or losing a ball thanks to a boneheaded decision, or not tracking back. You have to be a different player long enough to become in fact a different player.
This current Dembele was a fool not to eagerly embrace, especially if the rumor of a short-term duration offer was true, the Barça contract renewal. It gives him a chance to prove himself at a team in the spotlight, in the hands of a manager that is figuring out how to use him at a club in transition. Dembele will have no better chance at being a top player than he has right now.
That his agent has effectively snatched that away is appalling. The relationship between the two is almost paternal, and the player trusts the agent with a fullness that would be admirable if it wasn’t running the danger of leaving Newcastle as the only option. And that can’t be what they envisioned at the start of this process.
Ego is useful, but if it isn’t attended by circumspection and humility, then ego is just stupidity and recklessness. Sissoko is being reckless with the future of a player who deserves better. Maybe Dembele is starting to question, to ask his agent “WTF is going on here?” Maybe. And maybe the agent is saying, “It’s under control, trust me.” Maybe.
But leaving FC Barcelona right now is an idiotic decision for Ousmane Dembele.
And sooooo …
What you shouldn’t rule out is the player staying. Maybe cooler heads will prevail, a couple of phone calls will be made and Dembele and his agent will say, “You know, 8m (or whatever) at Barcelona is better than 10m at … ” And pride will be swallowed, and that will be that.
And P.J. Harvey will be emailing me back about brunch any day now.
Chelsea is still the most likely destination for the player, a club stuffed with wingers, all of who will be tactically useful at various times to the manager. And we can predict the headlines: Dembele unhappy at Chelsea, etc, etc.
And people will be happy about that, even if in many ways all of this is sad — from the injuries and physio mismanagement to an agent who doesn’t seem to be making the right calls for his player. But nobody should be happy about it, even as they might be content that they have done all that they could for someone seemingly determined to ram that bumper car into the wall.