Adeu, Ousmane Dembele … again (aka ‘Unrequited’)

To begin with the part that is going to piss people off:

Too many of y’all are acting like fools, hyperbolic nitwits, over Ousmane Dembele. So much nonsense has been spouted about a player who deserves precious little of the bile and rage thrown his way, but come his way it has, from the first injury to the last. It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense for a great many reasons, not least of which is the complete and utter lack of perspective present in almost all of the brickbats being hurled.

“Trash player,” “flop,” “waste of money,” etc. All nonsense. It’s easy to understand why Dembele enrages otherwise rational people: This is going to date me, but watching him play is like when us oldsters were trying to watch a TV show on a scrambled cable channel. Every few minutes or so, a perfect image would pop up on the screen to tantalize, before the pixelated mess returned.

That was Dembele. The runs, the golazos, the wreckage of defenders strewn in his fleet-footed wake were moments that came like bolts of lightning, and they got us excited. Even the hard-hearted would think. “If he can do that consistently … ” But he can’t. He never could and he never will. If he could, he would be Messi, and worth every penny of the exorbitant salary PSG is about to pay him.

Instead he is a blithe mess of a player, capable of genius and then mishitting a short pass, a PlayStation player being run by a controller with an intermittent glitch. He is infuriating not because he cost 140m but because of all that damn promise that is never going to be realized consistently enough to help the team we support.

The ONLY people mad at Dembele, posting pig’s head memes on Twitter and acting like fools, are culers. He came, he promised, he broke. The club paid too much for him, then used him improperly. In many ways his failure isn’t his fault, which enrages all the more. It’s difficult to think of a Barça player not named Sergi Samper who has had worse injury luck. But with Samper it was, “Poor lad can’t catch a break.” With Dembele it was, “What did he do to hurt himself now?”

Ousmane Dembele is frustrating and enraging because of what could have been. Everyone gets mad when they think they have had one pulled over on them. Except with Dembele, they haven’t. He is exactly what he is, and will be exactly what he is. Shame on us for expecting him to be more than what he is. But here’s what worst: What he is has been diminished by injury after injury, disruptions that usually come just as he is finding form, and clunk. That he is even remotely as capable as he used to be is pretty remarkable, when you think about it, all of the injuries, and surgeries, and botched recoveries. In all of his time at the club, he has rarely been both fit and in form, and that is frustrating.

We want a player that our team buys to be magnificent, worth every penny of the transfer fee paid, we want that player to help our team shine. Dembele did that only rarely, but teased us with those moments. We remember more the failures, the chances saved against PSG, the sitter he missed against Liverpool. We remember the missed passes, the shots screwed wide. We remember the frustration at the unrequited magic from a player that was never going to be what he promised, but was also improperly used, which was some of the problem.

At Dortmund, he drove that attack like a fiend, ball at his feet. Never a goalscorer but always a hellraiser, he was brilliant. Dortmund was equally brilliant at extracting maximum value from a fool and his money. I wrote some time ago that Dembele should never have been purchased, for the same reason Barça shouldn’t have acquired Griezmann or Coutinho: it is tactically impossible to use the player in the way that maximizes their game. So all three were promise unrealized. And soon, all three will be gone.

But “go over there on the wing and do something” isn’t what should have been done with him, even with all of the maddening moments of his time at the club. You do that with Adama Traore. Dembele wasn’t a goalscorer, but was slammed for not scoring goals. He wasn’t really an assist machine, but was slammed for not generating bags of assists. Even the year he led Liga in assists, it wasn’t enough. It was never going to be enough because Ousmane Dembele is incapable of delivering on his immense talent. Some players are like that, and they drive us crazy. We watch, wait and get mad at ourselves for having hope.

I can’t be mad about the way Dembele left the club. He should have been allowed to leave last season, except the roster wasn’t sufficient to move on without him, even after the purchase of Raphinha. Xavi stuck his neck out for him, ostensibly, but more for his project. He needed Dembele to do those Dembele things, so that his chaosball (yes, that’s what it was … don’t even try) could work. When Dembele and Pedri broke, again, Xaviball stopped working and there was no plan B.

Dembele would have left on a free last summer. This summer, he exercised a fool’s clause and will net the club some cash, a fraction of what Barça paid but probably about what he’s worth, even in today’s transfer market, because to paraphrase Forrest Gump, Dembele is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you are going to get. That inconsistency is tiring to watch. No player is truly consistent, even the greats. But they aren’t disasters when they aren’t being great.

The other thing tiring to watch is the uncertainty — will this be the run, will this be the tackle that lays him our for months and months, requiring surgery and yet another comeback. Whew! That wasn’t the run. Is this one? I can’t watch. I can’t think of a more frustrating player to wear the colors.

But here’s the thing about his time at the club — it’s also difficult to imagine a more vilified player. People will say, “No, he wasn’t he had his fans.” He did. All twelve of them. The rest were either cursing him for his fee, his injuries, his moments of failure. His injuries were his fault, he stays up all night playing videogames, all the stuff sold to a greedy fanbase already looking for a reason to despise a 140m purchase who couldn’t possibly live up to that price tag.

“Snake,” “weasel,” etc. Many of the same people screaming about his leaving and how unfair it is were clamoring to put him in the stands during his last contract negotiation. He’s gone. Be happy. The club got some cash, and the player is gone. If you get what you wanted, what’s not to like? Wanted a bigger fee for a player so many deemed worthless? Just how is that supposed to happen for a player whose good moments at the club were greeted almost begrudgingly, as though they went against the prevailing notions. “How DARE he be good?” His errors and brain fades were almost reassuring.

But when we cheer for a player, for our team, what is it that we are rooting for? Hope. We sit and dream that this attack will score that needed goal, that a defender will stop an opponent break. Being a sports fan is all about hope. When hope is dashed, it’s heartbreaking but also maddening. Every transfer is hope. The bigger the fee, the bigger the hope. It’s unavoidable.

Ousmane Dembele was, like or not, admit it or not, hope. Neymar left and so did some essential dynamism. Dembele was supposed to be the answer. That he essentially altered the trajectory of his career attempting a backheel in open space is the epitome of his history at FC Barcelona. It’s sad, it’s infuriating, it’s hopeful, would even be pitiable if people had hearts. But they don’t. They can’t. Not for 140 million they can’t.

But when all is said and done, a massive talent never to be fully realized is scuttling down the ratlines, almost tripling his salary to live in a city even more exciting to be a millionaire in than Barcelona. How can that NOT piss people off? Want to get mad at somebody? Get mad at the loons who allowed a Damocles-like clause that Dembele used to leave the club.

“He was no good anyhow,” is how people console themselves. But he was. And he wasn’t. Not consistently enough to be good enough to be good. And that’s that. He’s gone. Good riddance? Maybe. Or maybe it’s a rueful shake of the head at what might have been had so many things been different.