Only two years earlier, he had been threatened with being released by Rennes after engaging in an arm-wrestle with the club over his playing status. However, he would subsequently force himself into their starting XI with a succession of blistering performances, thus earning a transfer to BVB before developing into one of the Bundesliga’s outstanding figures.
A move to a super-power was the next logical step for the 20-year-old but his time at Camp Nou has not gone as planned, thus threatening his place in a hyper-competitive France squad for World Cup 2018.
He arrived amid much fanfare, signed for what was then a club-record fee, with the burden of having to replace Neymar. But nearly six months on, he has barely had the chance to show Barca’s fans what he can do, let alone display his ability to replace the world’s most expensive player.
Playing his fourth La Liga match for his new side, Dembele suffered a hamstring problem when attempting to backheel the ball that ended 2017 as early as August. Having featured for only 92 minutes since, a different issue in his left leg promises to pin him to the sidelines for a month.
Dembele’s fitness problems have not necessarily been the making of either the club or the player, but naivety may have played its part.
“Maybe it was a sin of youth not to say that he felt discomfort in that area beforehand,” considered Dr. Sakari Orava, who has been keeping tabs on the player to Mundo Deportivo in October. “The pressure that he had been exposed to after his transfer to the club could also have influenced the injury."
By the time he returns to action, it is likely that two-thirds of the league season will have been completed. In the space of nine months, he will have completed a full match only once – the DFL Supercup back in August – and Barca will have paid €734,265 for each Liga minute their marquee summer signing will have played.
To complicate matters for the attacker, he will also be competing for space in the starting XI with Philippe Coutinho, who took over from him as Barca’s record signing when he joined from Liverpool for €160m earlier this month. He is also injured, but is expected back in a fortnight.
In the long term, the Brazilian’s presence should help Dembele ease his way back from hamstring issues, which are notoriously difficult to shake, but it is hard to see him nailing down the kind of minutes that will secure him a place in Didier Deschamps’ World Cup squad – a position that looked inevitable when the season began.
“I have a lot of work to do to get up to speed, but I’m relaxed,” he said before suffering his setback. The workload will only increase with a further month’s absence.
Inevitably, there will be linger doubts over Dembele’s ability to play with the kind of intensity required in tournament football, and the France boss will not be compelled to take a gamble on a half-fit player.
There are a veritable gaggle of similar forwards battling for a berth in the national side. Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar, Alexandre Lacazette, Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial and even Nabil Fekir and Florian Thauvin, in fine form for Marseille, are all capable of filling Dembele’s role, and while they are not all necessarily as proficient, all will have had the benefit of more competitive minutes to impress the coach.
Of course, Deschamps’ preference will be to have the Barca ace in his ranks, but he does not want for alternatives if the concerns over the youngster are too great.
It was Dembele’s destiny to play in Russia back in August, now it is drifting towards being a 50-50 shot. Another setback could be decisive, with Dembele's dream of a successful debut season in Catalunya in very real danger of turning into a nightmare.