Miles Olusina breaks down the abilities of the canny Barcelona and France winger Ousmane Dembélé as he embarks on his new Catalan adventure.
As the 2016/17 season drew to a close and Real Madrid clinched their second consecutive Champions League title, their Catalan rivals could only look on in disappointment as they had to settle for a Copa del Rey in manager Luis Enrique’s final season at the helm. The worst was yet to come as Barcelona suffered a blow which looked to have paved the way for Real Madrid’s dominance of Spanish football for years to come. All seemed lost as Neymar, the presumptive heir to Lionel Messi, was allowed to leave for Paris Saint-Germain for a world record fee of £198m.
With fans becoming disgruntled and the club failing to land primary target Philippe Coutinho, serious action was required and that was indeed what occurred with the acquisition of wunderkind Ousmane Dembélé from Dortmund. At just 20 years old, he was exactly the player they needed to fill the boots of Neymar, a skillful, unpredictable, decisive player with the potential to not only match but even potentially exceed the Brazilian in the near future.
Who is Ousmane Dembélé ?
Born in Vernon, Normandy on the 15th May 1997 to Mauritian and Senegalese parents, Dembélé was picked up by his first professional cub, Rennes at age 13 and made an almost immediate impression. He initially began playing with the reserves in 2014, making his debut in September and providing an assist against Guingamp. After an impressive 13 goals in 18 games that season, it quickly became apparent that he was ready to make the step up to the first team.
He made his competitive debut as a substitute early in the 2015-16 season, scoring his first goal coming in November 2015 against Bordeaux. It was not until March, however, when he truly grabbed the headlines, scoring a wonderful hat-trick against Nantes and driving his club’s late push for European football. He finished the season with 12 league goals in 26 games, becoming the youngest player in league history to reach double figures.
Talent Radar Accolades:
Europe’s leading clubs began to take notice; he attracted interest from Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City and Bayern Munich to but name a few. He eventually joined Dortmund in July 2016 for what seemed a paltry €15m, a sum perhaps driven by the links between Rennes and the German club via Puma. It did not take long for him to have Dortmund fans off their seats as he put in a number of mesmerizing performances against some of Europe’s top sides. Last season, he scored 10 goals and racked up an incredible 20 assists across all competitions, prompting Barca to pay an astonishing €105m to bring him to the Camp Nou.
What is his Style of Play?
Dembélé can best be described as a skillful, creative winger who is at his most effective in one-on-one situations. He can be a real nightmare for opposition full backs, as he is very skilled in dribbling past opponents, evidenced by his 105 completed take-ons in the Bundesliga last season, coming at a 57% success rate. He also tends to operate frequently in the half spaces, playing between the wing and the central area of the pitch. It is here thar he tends to find pockets of space to receive the ball and accelerate, giving him a better chance of beating his full back as he cuts inside.
He is not necessarily an out-and-out goalscorer, despite displaying the ability to do so as evinced by his goal tallies to date. Rather, his game is based more around being a more creative presence, whether that be from crosses, cut backs or through balls in the final third. His game also allows his teammates to find more space on the pitch; when he receives possession he often has multiple defenders looking to press him, potentially freeing his teammates. Additionally, Dembélé’s competence with both feet allows him to play on either wing and makes him somewhat unpredictable as he has the option of cutting inside and shooting, combining with a player in the middle, beating his defender on the flank and putting in a cross from a wide area
What are his Strengths?
Dembélé’s most evident strength is without a doubt his dribbling ability. He has shown time and again to be capable of drawing defenders in and skipping past them with pace. He has shown this skill in a variety of ways, playing both on the counter and when his side is in possession. His pace on the wing is impressive but he is also able to beat multiple players cutting inside from wide areas. This makes him a valuable, multivalent asset in the final third in the event his team struggle to break down a stubborn defensive block.
One would do well to recall an example of this last season; against Bayern Munich in the DFB Pokal semifinal, he received the ball on the wing and was immediately surrounded by 3 Bayern players. He bypassed the first challenge well, using his body to shield the ball well from Mats Hummels as the German attempts to win the ball from behind him. The next two challenges he evades are even more impressive as he exhibits his brilliant agility, shifting his body weight rapidly in order to beat Jerome Boateng’s initial challenge and then that of Xabi Alonso. In that instance, the chance went begging, but Dembélé’s ability to befuddle two of the world’s better centre backs in the same instance was impressive indeed.
Another example of his brilliant dribbling ability was on display England in the spring. France were in transition after an England corner and the ball fell to Dembélé on the touchline, relatively deep in his own half. Taking on Kyle Walker, he took an intelligent first touch to knock it past the England right back, then retrieved the ball, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact he had kept possession in such a congested area. This example also highlights his incredible pace, as he was able to retrieve possession against one of the Premier League’s quickest fullbacks. It also highlights his usefulness in transition as he has the ability to travel with the ball over long distances with speed and beat his defender, making him an ideal player to have when on the counter attack.
In addition to being a wonderful dribbler, Dembélé also has a great understanding of the game in terms of his positioning and his movement. He can be frequently seen in games occupying those aforementioned half spaces as opposed to staying on the touchline to isolate the full back, as most players with his skill set would do. He prefers to operate in the half space as it allows him more time and space on the ball as many teams neglect this area with their defensive positioning. As a result, he is able to receive possession and pick out a pass or accelerate to give himself an advantage in beating his defender. It also allows him to still be connected to his teammates in the centre thus making him more able to combine and play one twos with them.
What are his Weaknesses?
As a player with such immense ability, it can be quite hard to pinpoint many weaknesses in Dembélé’s game. However, he does tend to misplace quite a few passes, achieving a paltry 66% pass completion rate in the Bundesliga last season. This is quite understandable as he does tend to play riskier passes but it pales in comparison to other attackers in the side such as Mario Gotze (83%), Marco Reus (77%) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (71%). One cannot complain about his productivity though, as he managed a total of 20 assists last season, by far the highest in the side. His passes tend to go astray in the final third predominantly as his final ball is often intercepted. He appears to rush his pass when in the final third, which could mean that his decision making still needs to improve. He could disguise his passes more effectively, making it more difficult for the defender to anticipate but at only 20, one would expect that will improve as he gains more experience and learns from the best in the next few years at Barcelona.
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