Ousmane Dembele must stay fit before fulfilling his potential at Barcelona
It didn’t take long for Barcelona’s supporters to come up with a chant for Ousmane Dembele; every time the France international steps on the pitch, his name echoes around Camp Nou to the tune of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem.
It’s one of the more catchy tracks that fans have come up with in recent seasons and a refreshing listen when contrasted with the monotonous repetition of most players’ names. The problem? It’s not been sung nearly as often as might have been imagined.
Barca signed Dembele from Borussia Dortmund for an initial €105 million in August but he’s played just 291 minutes this season. On Sunday, he came off the bench for 27 minutes in the stalemate with Getafe, making just his eighth appearance of the season.
It was the first time he’d played in a month, following a hamstring injury sustained against Real Sociedad on Jan. 14. That game at Anoeta was just his fourth following four months on the sideline with a ruptured tendon.
On Monday, he missed training; Barca said he had a stomach problem. In short, Dembele’s Barcelona career has yet to get going.
Ernesto Valverde admitted after the Getafe game that the forward’s lack of minutes was apparent and that things hadn’t quite come off for him. But the most important thing between now and the end of the season is not just that Dembele stays fit — that’s a given — but that he’s given time to settle.
Not only was he thrown into one of the most demanding clubs in Europe at a young age, but he arrived with the added expectation of being Barca’s most expensive signing. That tag has since been taken by Philippe Coutinho but the pressure remains and many believe that scrutiny could have played a part in his injury problems.
“Perhaps he doesn’t have the experience to recognise problems which could become worse,” Valverde said after Dembele was injured in September. “Because he’s a fast player, it’s the movement he made which was the worst thing for the muscle. Maybe a more experienced player would have known not to make that movement.”
Alternatively, perhaps Dembele didn’t want to recognise the problem because of the expectation on him to perform, to justify his price tag and to effectively replace Neymar.
“Maybe it was a sin of youth not to say, ‘I felt discomfort in that area before,'” said Sakari Orava, the surgeon who operated on Dembele five months ago. “The pressure to which he was exposed after his signing for the club could also have affected him.”
The idea of the pressure and of stress having such an effect that it makes a player more liable to injury is one which is held by many. When Coutinho was pushing for a Barcelona move last summer, for example, the Brazilian national team doctor had a theory regarding his back injury.
“Coutinho’s back problem was a matter of stress, it was something emotional,” Michael Simoni said at the time. “The uncertainty about his future led him to feeling stressed.”
It’s a theory that Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp agrees with.
“I saw it when Mario Gotze joined Bayern Munich,” the former Dortmund coach told DAZN last month. “The deal is announced and then, one week later, he tears a muscle. I never believed that was a coincidence. There was a lot of pressure, the lad’s under incredible pressure and boom his muscle goes. Those are things which happen in those moments. And that was similar with Phil [Coutinho].”
Given he had no history with injuries before moving to Barca, Dembele can be filed in this category. After striking to force through his move and subsequently missing weeks of training he was, to use Klopp’s words, under “incredible pressure” when he arrived in Catalonia.
Back at square one again, Dembele needs patience and, luckily, Valverde is quite good in that regard. Things have changed slightly in the time he’s been out injured: Barca’s form has lessened the pressure, as has the arrival of Coutinho to replace him as the club’s record signing.
Now Dembele needs to be given time to slowly feel his way into the team. And he needs the supporters to keep on singing La Marseillaise.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.