Sometimes, football happens too fast for a rising star.
Four years ago, few young players were as coveted as Ousmane Dembélé. After exploding onto the scene at Rennes, scoring 12 goals in his debut season with the first team, he was promptly whisked away to Borussia Dortmund. Dembélé had attracted interest from Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who met the player in Paris only to hear of his decision to join Dortmund.
There, he linked up with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Marco Reus and Christian Pulisic as part of Dortmund’s fearsome attacking unit. Like in his native France, Dembélé proved a major hit in Germany during the 2016/17 season. Then, having helped Dortmund to DFB-Pokal success, the young winger began attracting admiring glances from Europe’s heavyweights once again.
In August 2017, not long after allowing Neymar to join Paris Saint-Germain in a world-record deal, Barcelona announced a £135.5million deal to sign Dembélé as the Brazilian’s replacement. It was an eye-watering fee for a player who had just turned 20, but to many, it was justified.
During the 2016/17 season, on top of his 18 direct Bundesliga goal involvements (6G, 12A), he created 76 chances for his Dortmund teammates, as per Opta, and completed 103 dribbles. Dembélé’s pace, invention and cutting edge from wide areas established him as one of the most devastating wingers in Europe. He was a player Barcelona felt they simply had to have, similar to United’s current mindset regarding Dortmund’s current wizard of the wing, Jadon Sancho.
Looking at United’s squad and their performances during the first three Premier League games of the season, it is clear that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could use upgrades at centre-back and defensive midfield. Instead, United have prioritised the acquisition of a right-sided winger with Sancho cemented as their top target. However, with their pursuit having stalled, they turned their attention to Dembélé, who they wanted to sign on a season-long loan.
Three years ago, Liverpool fans would have despaired at the thought of Dembélé joining United. In the current climate, however, the Reds should have little to fear if he makes the switch to Old Trafford. Simply put, the pressure of being Neymar’s replacement at the Camp Nou has weighed heavily on the young Frenchman. While there have been flashes of brilliance, his spell in Catalonia has been largely frustrating. Of course, injuries have more than played their part. In fact, he was restricted to just 12 La Liga starts in his first year at the club, and while he managed 20 in the 2018/19 season, he still missed a sizable portion of the campaign with various injury problems.
There had been promising signs during that 2018/19 campaign, with eight goals and five assists a respectable return in 1,661 minutes of action, but any sense of an upward trajectory was short-lived during a 2019/20 season ravaged by injury. After sustaining a hamstring problem on the opening day of the season, Dembélé returned to action briefly only to hobble off during Barcelona’s Champions League group stage win over his former side Dortmund in November.
That would prove to be his last competitive appearance until September 27, when he came on for the last 20 minutes of Barca’s 4-0 La Liga win over Villarreal. He was not involved in his side’s following two games, however, meaning he is drastically short of competitive minutes over the last 10 months. His long-time injury woes and lack of match sharpness are just part of the problem with Dembélé having experienced disciplinary issues during his time at Barca.
Under Ernesto Valverde, he was guilty of showing up two hours late for training after sleeping in. At the end of September, Marca reported that he once again failed to arrive in a punctual manner, thus risking the wrath of new boss Ronald Koeman. That latest episode suggests the Frenchman has yet to realise the error of his ways. The last thing Liverpool or United need is a player whose off-field activities attract unwanted media attention.
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Dembélé was arguably in Sancho’s position three years ago: a generational talent with the world at his feet. It is therefore interesting that United have turned to Sancho’s predecessor at Dortmund in an attempt to bolster Solskjaer’s attack. At his best, Dembélé is a world-beater, a winger capable of lighting up the biggest stage and leaving the sturdiest of defences in his wake. However, the simple truth is that Barcelona fans have not seen him at his brilliant best nearly enough to justify the premium price they paid Dortmund in 2017.
Whereas Liverpool’s interest in Dembélé seemed logical given his unstoppable surge to the pinnacle of the game, United’s move to land him on deadline day seemed more like a desperate scramble to appease a disillusioned fanbase. And barring a dramatic reversal in the player’s fortunes, even if he had landed a move to Old Trafford it was always more than likely going to stay that way.