During a rewatch of the Inter Milan sludgefest, my annoyance at Ousmane Dembele tilting at yet another bank of Inter players and losing the ball was like something fresh, even as the outcome was already decided.
The match progressed, and Xavi changed everything about the team and how it was playing that vexed him. Static on the left flank, so he added Balde. No dynamism in midfield, so he pulled Gavi and added Kessie. He pulled Raphinha, who had the ball security of Fort Knox compared to Dembele.
And he kept getting the ball to Dembele.
There’s a lot we can conclude from that, and the conclusion will depend on the template you bring to the situation. He didn’t have any other option, he loves Dembele, etc, etc. Nonetheless, if the Frenchman’s losing balls drove Xavi as crazy as it drove the rest of the free world, why didn’t he sub on Ferran Torres, with the instructions to “Not lose the ball like a drunken sailor on payday?”
Only Xavi knows.
But in thinking back over Barça history, the player most like Dembele, even as he was much better, was Neymar. And we didn’t like him, either. Neymar lost a lot of balls. And after every match where Neymar lost a lot of balls, we would sit around and say, “Lordy, that lad lost a lot of balls. He sucked.” And Luis Enrique, just as Xavi does with Dembele, would say, “Here’s the ball. Go do something.”
And the thought crossed my mind: What if it’s us? If neither manager had a real issue with their player losing balls, and both said as much at various different times with words as well as actions, what if it’s us and the template we use to assess a team and a game?
Pep Guardiola arrived and brought with him an extraordinary level of football, played by geniuses who were all at the peak of their powers. And that team didn’t lose the ball. In a hurricane, against physical sides that battered them, they didn’t lose the ball, never did anything silly, needlessly risky that might cause them to lose the ball.
“Smart” pundits called that style boring. Guardiola said, “We’re crap without the ball, so … ”
And that team did amazing things in matches, in our hearts and minds. Legendary stuff with legendary scorelines, trophy celebrations and parades — so many parades — as we hailed their exploits. Player after player, smart on the ball and secure in control. Even Messi hadn’t yet become That Messi, the windmill tilting one, so he was part of it. Security.
Tito Vilanova arrived, making “Vroom, vroom!” motor sounds as he revved up what Guardiola had built, seeking a more dynamic style. Tragedy robbed us not only of that experiment, but of an acceptable bridge from Guardiola to now. A sub for Vilanova who wasn’t up to the task led to a caretaker in “Tata” Martino, led to a heretic in Luis Enrique, the man who won the treble that also won us Josep Bartomeu, so … UGH.
Luis Enrique’s Barça was Messi’s car, but Neymar was given the steering wheel and throttle. “Where’s the midfield,” people asked, templates already set. “Over there, celebrating goals with the forwards,” was the easiest answer. The results dwindled for his swashbucklers and for many the answer was easy: They strayed from The Way.
Every manager after Luis Enrique was, and felt, temporary. Ernesto Valverde had the longest tenure, but he was a tinkerer, a fixer who made good things from whatever parts he was given. And he came so close to true greatness — a few goals here or there — before the parts quality diminished and the wheels fell off. And then came the conga line. Through all of that, false starts, optimism quickly dashed amid trophyless seasons, hope remained for the one that would lead the team back to the proper way.
And then came Xavi, and all was going to be right again. And Xavi said, “Dembele. I need Dembele.” And Dembele returned, and Xavi gave him the ball. A part-time player led Liga in assists last season. He lost balls, did stuff that onlookers deemed “stupid,” and Xavi signaled his assent with his continued presence on the pitch.
Raphinha came and people said, “Dembele is in trouble now that Xavi has a smart winger who is secure on the ball.” Xavi said to Raphinha, “You go over there, so that Dembele can play over here.” And he gave Dembele the ball.
I’m not that bright, so it takes me a while to figure stuff out that is seemingly simple. But after looking at how many balls Dembele lost against Inter and wondering why Xavi didn’t not only yank him but shoot him into the sun, all I can think is, maybe Xavi is fine with it. Or not exactly fine with it, but he has reconciled himself to the idea that you have to shoot your shot or nothing will ever happen. And that involves risk.
The team’s best scoring chances were created either by Dembele, or he had a part in them. Every last one. So you have a player who can keep the ball in a tornado but doesn’t do anything with it and one who might score a golazo or create an assist but is more likely to give it away, and what happens? Maybe those things are meant to be compatible. The team gets the ball, gives it to the wild card, who tries something that does or doesn’t come off, and the cycle repeats. Maybe.
What of a match where Barça has 100 percent possession, does nothing with the ball except stroke it around in the face of five CBs and every opponent back, and the final score is 0-0? That probably could have happened against Inter had Barça so desired. Inter mostly took the ball and attacked with reluctance, like, “Welp. They gave us this thing. Now what?”
Xavi has a flawed team. He has possession magicians, passing wizards and a 9 that can put the ball in the net, but needs service to make that happen. He also has catalysts, in Raphinha and Dembele. It isn’t a perfect team. Far, far from it. But it is a team with which, barring the ridiculous spate of injuries that has suddenly descended upon that group, he can build something cool. Really cool.
And what if he has decided that starts with giving Dembele, the most dynamic and lethal agent on that team, even as he is also the one most likely to make us groan in exasperation, the ball? How long are we going to wrestle with that reality, and are we ever going to accept it? If Dembele doesn’t try anything but also never loses the ball, what is he and do we want that player? Xavi doesn’t seem to. “Here’s the ball. Go do something.”
Nobody is going to argue for an instant that giving the ball away as many time as Dembele did against Inter isn’t ridiculous. And there is progress in that Dembele, when he tries things, loses the ball now in or very near the opponent box rather than in midfield, where he used to act like Captain Counter. So there’s that. But Ousmane Dembele is digital, either a 1 or a 0, mostly zeroes. But it only takes a couple of ones, and it’s looking like Xavi wants to be digital instead of analog.
So what do we do, and how do we watch this team, and that player?