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Dembele's time to shine? Why new Barcelona boss Xavi could unlock winger's superstar potential

1:23 am AEDT 27/11/21
Ousmane Dembele Barcelona 2021-22 GFX
The Frenchman has failed miserably to justify his lofty transfer fee and is out of contract next summer, but he could yet salvage his Camp Nou career

Is this Ousmane Dembele’s time to shine?

It’s a question that has been asked at various junctures over the past four years. The answer has always been no, and yet now it is being asked again, louder than ever before.

Between multiple injury breakdowns and subsequent false starts, many consider the French winger one of Barcelona’s worst signings of all time.

Costing €105 million, rising to €147m with add-ons, he has offered a dismal bang-per-buck ratio, out injured for exactly 100 games across all competitions since joining.

But even though the question remains the same, this time the answer is different. And the man responding is Barcelona legend and new coach Xavi Hernandez.

“Dembele can be the best player in the world in his position,” insisted Xavi at his presentation earlier in November. “He has to be a world-class player. It’s important to have a winning mentality and consistency. We have to help him.”

Despite the manager’s faith, Dembele's contractual situation hangs over everything like a dark cloud, with the deal he penned five years ago expiring in June, meaning that, from January, other clubs can try to tempt him away.

Financially, there there is no argument; any serious team looking to poach Dembele will be able to offer him more money than Barcelona. The club’s great hope is that he stays because, finally, he sees a future for himself at Camp Nou.

And perhaps for the first time, Dembele has a coach who truly believes in him.

“His renewal is a priority,” Xavi told reporters at his presentation, although the message was for the man beside him, president Joan Laporta.

One motivating factor is Dembele’s potential. Even the forward’s many detractors could not deny that injury-free, he can be a devastating weapon.

Xavi knows Barcelona’s finances are unlikely to allow them to sign a superstar in the near future, so he wants to keep the one potential world-beater he always has in his squad.

Barcelona’s biggest problems in the first games of his reign have been in the final third, with two clean sheets but only one goal scored. A fit and firing Dembele can change that.

Supporters, galvanised by the coach’s words, believe in him too.

When he came on against Benfica there was a palpable change in the atmosphere at Camp Nou. Finally, thought the fans, someone who can make the difference for us. The stadium roared to greet his arrival like it never has before.

Given how little he has done since joining, the reaction was surprisingly intense. Contrast it to the deathly silence when Philippe Coutinho joins the fray, another eye-wateringly expensive arrival who has failed to impress, or even merely suffice.

The Brazilian’s spark has gone out, but fans believe Dembele still has the magic in his boots to revert the club’s fortunes. 

“I think that what happened the other day at the Camp Nou, to come on and receive so much love from the fans, that will help him,” former Arsenal and Villarreal winger Robert Pires told Diario Sport.

“On a mental level, that is vital for a player. What happened on Tuesday was a turning point.”

Xavi revealed that Dembele was not fully fit but risked himself for the team in a game Barcelona were desperate to win to secure progression to the Champions League last 16.

They could not; the match ending goalless, meaning they likely have to win at Bayern Munich to qualify. And yet, Dembele’s arrival ignited the second half with Barcelona flagging, and got fans off their seats.

With Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar leaving, Dembele is one of the few figures at the club who can thrill in the same visceral fashion.

He may not be able to start in the trip to face Villarreal on Saturday night, but he may well be called on again by Xavi. If there is to be a "turning point" in Dembele’s career at Barcelona, then now is the time.

Finally, he has a manager keen to use aggressive, risk-taking wingers.

In the past, if Dembele lost the ball the stadium groaned. They were accustomed to Messi, whose magic was ludicrously consistent. Now they know what life is like without the No.10 and the yardstick for Dembele to match up to is a whole lot lower.

Xavi’s aggressive counter-pressing tactics also play into Dembele’s hands. After a turnover, the two interior midfielders and the three forwards immediately press to win the ball back. Before, losing possession meant Barcelona were on the back foot. Now it gives them a new avenue to goal.

Nico Gonzalez, in particular, has shown he is adroit at immediately attacking opposition defenders in dangerous areas.

So, the system works for Dembele. But can he keep fit? There is some cause for hope. Despite the bad knee injury he suffered at Euro 2020, it is completely unrelated to his prior hamstring issues. Those were the main problem for him and the knee problem may just have been bad luck.

Even though he was not at 100 per cent fitness against Benfica, he looked confident and willing to tear at the defence, implying he isn’t too preoccupied with a relapse. The ‘Mosquito' buzzed angrily, with no reticence.

Spanish reports suggest he is no longer struggling with professionalism issues, even if he has been late a couple of times to training recently.

That flawed nature further endears himself to some supporters, humanising him in a time where footballers are idolised beyond reason. Who hasn’t overslept occasionally? 

Xavi is certainly not sleeping on Dembele, and nor are Barcelona fans. Coming good late in the day would be a fitting way to finally ‘arrive’.

A mix of optimism for his performances and fear over his future mean the next few months will be intriguing where Dembele is concerned, on and off the pitch.