all today football news

Ousmane Dembele, the guy who came in from the cold – The Athletic – The latest soccer highlights and football news

In the four years leading up to this World Cup, Ousmane Dembele played just seven times for his country, appearing for a total of 200 minutes. 

He was a world champion, part of the France squad that won the trophy in Russia in 2018, but he had become the forgotten young man of international football. Actually, no, not forgotten; frequently cited as a wasted talent, a symbol of Barcelona’s eyewatering excesses, the embodiment of the phrase “too much too soon”.

He suffered terribly with injuries — hamstring issues that dogged him for two years, a knee injury that required surgery after his fleeting involvement in Euro 2020 — and some of those who work at Barcelona suggest he lost his way.

It wasn’t just the injuries and the way they left him doubting his body, thinking that “at any moment I could get injured”. It was the struggle to adjust to the speed of his rise from Rennes to Borussia Dortmund to Barcelona — with the weight of expectation that came with his €105 million transfer and then the sense of isolation, which left him feeling more lost than ever, when people stopped expecting anything from him.

It was a surprise when Didier Deschamps took him to last year’s Euros, citing a newfound maturity and consistency that not many had detected from his form at Barcelona. It was an opportunity Dembele didn’t really seize; he made little impact as a substitute in the pre-tournament friendly matches against Wales and Bulgaria or when coming off the bench against Germany and Hungary in the finals before injury struck once more.

When it came to the Nations League matches last June, Deschamps overlooked him, citing the difficulties of accommodating him now that France had moved (albeit briefly) to playing with wing-backs and saying that “to call him up, we would have to remove another who is also performing well”.

Dembele’s is the World Cup redemption story most of us didn’t see coming. He looked destined for one of those line-ups posted on social media with “11 players you won’t BELIEVE are missing from the 2022 World Cup” — except he probably wouldn’t have made the cut for that either once Mohamed Salah, Karim Benzema, Erling Haaland, Sadio Mane and Victor Osimhen had all been ruled out.

But Deschamps saw enough in Dembele’s performances over the first few months of the season to want to take him to Qatar. Since then he has seen enough to want to start him in both of France’s opening games: a 4-1 win over Australia, in which he laid on a goal for Kylian Mbappe, and on Saturday evening a 2-1 victory over Denmark, in which he thoroughly enjoyed himself once more.

Only five minutes had passed when Dembele chased a loose ball outside towards the right-hand touchline, level with the France penalty area. He beat Joakim Maehle to the ball, gathered pace and then almost languidly body-swerved away from Mikkel Damsgaard and Christian Eriksen before playing a pass into the path of his team-mate Adrien Rabiot. From a difficult position, near his own corner flag, Dembele had put France on the attack within seconds.

all today football news

(Photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Mbappe was France’s match-winner of course — of course — scoring two second-half goals in a 2-1 win that secured their place in the knock-out round with a game to spare. But there were periods in the first half in particular when it was hard to take your eyes off Dembele. To see him playing with such confidence and freedom, barely seen since his Dortmund days, has been an unexpected joy.

The question is whether he can find another gear, not in terms of acceleration but in terms of output. That is what Xavi Hernandez always talks about at Barcelona. “When he arrived (as coach) Xavi told me that I was already a great player, but that I had to have a change of mindset to become a top player,” Dembele told Catalan newspaper Sport. “He wanted me to become more rounded: to score and assist more.”

That willingness to be more efficient and more incisive was evident in one particular run in the first half when Dembele beat the Denmark offside trap and picked out Mbappe for a chance which the Paris Saint-Germain forward uncharacteristically spurned. It was there again on the hour when he drifted inside a couple of challenges and slipped another clever ball through to Mbappe, who was not able to complete the return pass.

Ultimately the difference between Dembele and Mbappe is not a question of skill or speed. Mbappe just seems so much more powerful, more driven, more intense. He is a force of nature. Dembele is a natural talent but one who is feeling his way back to form after five years of … not constant struggle but frequent difficulty.

He still has the air of a young player even though, at 25, he is 18 months Mbappe’s senior. A stop-start career, punctuated by injuries and dips in form and confidence, will do that. When one lost year follows another, a player can very quickly go from tomorrow’s hero to a case study of what might have been.

Dembele wasn’t the only player to suffer like this at Barcelona. He, Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann seemed emblematic of a club that lost its way under Josep Maria Bartomeu and is still making some less than convincing steps under his successor Joan Laporta.

As recently as last January, Dembele was being cast by the Barcelona hierarchy as an unwanted, ungrateful leftover from the Bartomeu regime. He had turned down various invitations to extend his deal at Barcelona, which was now in its in final months, and, with the transfer window open, he was dropped as the club tried to force him into finding a new club.

Director of football Mateu Alemany said Dembele “is not committed to Barca’s future sporting project” and “must leave immediately”. Dembele dug his heels in, forced his way back into the squad (once the transfer window closed), won back his first-team place, found his form and ended the season with more assists than any player in La Liga (13) despite having started just 15 matches.

all today football news

(Photo: Eric Verhoeven/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Even then, it seemed to speak volumes that when Dembele was out of contract last summer, he was far from inundated with offers; Chelsea showed an interest in him, as they did with pretty every big-name player on the market, but the player ended up signing a new two-year contract on Barcelona on reduced terms — the type of deal you might expect of a player the wrong side of 30, rather than one who should in theory have his best years ahead of him.

He hasn’t really looked back since then. He looked like a player enjoying a new lease of life on the pre-season tour of the United States and forced his way into Xavi’s starting line-up for the new campaign. He started the new season well with a flurry of goals and assists and then came stand-out performances against Inter Milan in the Champions League and Athletic Bilbao (a goal and three assists) in La Liga. 

“That’s why I pushed the club to re-sign him,” Xavi said. “Because he’s capable of great things.”

He is. And it will be fascinating to see whether he can take his game to new heights in Qatar or whether, having done his bit against Australia and Denmark, he finds himself rested against Tunisia, perhaps in favour of Kingsley Coman, and then drifts to the margins of the squad.

That’s how it went for Dembele in Russia in 2018: featuring prominently in the group stage but then watching the knockout stage from the bench, barring a two-minute cameo in the quarter-final against Uruguay, as Deschamps opted for a more pragmatic approach with Blaise Matuidi reinforcing the left-hand side and Olivier Giroud offering a fixed point in attack.

It would be no surprise to see France’s team evolve along similar lines now that they have become the first team to book their place in the round of 16. What works against Australia and Denmark might not necessarily be the coach’s preference in the knockout stage. 

For Dembele, though, just being at this tournament must feel like something to savour. He looks determined to enjoy it and to make the most of the opportunity. Four years on from France’s success at the last World Cup, he knows that playing on the biggest stages cannot be taken for granted.

(Photo: Michael Regan – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

source – Free to watch Football League Highlights

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *