The wait is over. FC Barcelona has completed the signing of Ousmane Dembélé from Borussia Dortmund for a club-record fee of €105 million, plus €40 million in potential bonuses. Barça has been willing to pay the fixed fee for some while, and after deliberations on the likelihood and ease of the variables, the deal could be completed to both clubs’ satisfaction.
Because this is unequivocally an excellent capture for Barça and because the majority of what I have to say about this move is positive, I will start with the “bad” news, none of which has anything to do with Dembélé’s actual abilities.
The first issue with the deal is one I covered in depth at the beginning of this saga: That the club has committed €130 million more to sign Dembélé this summer than they would have paid had they completed a deal last summer when Dortmund signed him from Rennes for €15 million.
It’s true that Dembélé had as much to do with Barcelona not completing the deal last summer as the club, for he preferred the playing time Dortmund had available to waiting in the wings behind Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi. But that same concern didn’t prevent Real Madrid from signing Marco Asensio before his price skyrocketed. Barca could have saved themselves a massive headache and an enormous amount of money had they managed to convince Dembélé to sign for them then and develop at the club of his choice on loan.
Secondly, even though Barcelona have finally captured one of their two most-desired targets, the deal comes with considerable risk, as would any move with this amount of money involved. The club is paying €105 million up front, a record fee sans Neymar, for a 20-year-old who has played one full season at the top level in Europe and was playing for Rennes’ B team 18 months ago.
That said, Dembélé was far and away the best Neymar replacement on the market and Barcelona has done well to get him over the line despite the excessive fee.
There are a couple of left wingers who might have offered a more complete imitation of Neymar in the short term – stars like Eden Hazard (who was never leaving Chelsea) and Alexis Sanchez (who probably didn’t want to return, anyway) – but Dembélé offers the best blend of immediate production and longterm potential. He showed last season he is good enough to contribute at a Champions League club even at his young age, and with his talent, he could easily be one of the top players in the world for a decade.
In terms of scoring, Dembélé will not provide the same amount of goals as Neymar did, at least not right away. His worst attacking attribute is his finishing, which is below average, and he has a tendency to go for the spectacular goals from outside the box, often sending the ball into the stands as a result. He had only eight goals in 31 Bundesliga/Champions League games last season, which is the same amount as Ivan Rakitic had for Barcelona (Neymar had 17).
Dembélé’s playmaking and dribbling, however, will cover a significant chunk of what Neymar offered. Dembélé’s pace and trickery are spellbinding, and his skillful runs and magic touches on the flank will sparkle at the Nou Camp. He had 18 assists in the Bundesliga and Champions League and led the league dribbles with more than three per game. He can appear sloppy with the ball, but last season Neymar lost the ball as much as anyone in Europe and he was still far and away the second best player in the world.
What Neymar showed is how important it was for Barca to have a player who was willing to take the pressure off the rest of the team, take players on and ease the creative burden on Messi. While frustrating at times, there is a lot of value in a player who drives play forward and allows Messi to focus on play in the final third. Barcelona still need a player who can do this from midfield, but having Dembélé do it on the wing will be crucial.
Dembélé still has to prove that his passing accuracy and decision making against parked buses and overly structured defenses is up to snuff. A good chunk of his assists last season came from breakaways alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang where they both could use their pace to get into scoring positions. Whether he can replicate that level of production in tight spaces and against set defenses remains to be seen. How quickly Dembélé can clean up and expand his passing game, which isn’t as robust as Neymar’s, will be key in his development.
Dembélé’s ambipedalness will allow him to play on either wing, which is important as Ernesto Valverde continues to toy with his ideal system. Valverde has used a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 so far this season, and while the formations are somewhat similar, each setup possesses a very distinct job for Lionel Messi. Whether Messi is asked to play as a 10 or on the right wing, Dembélé is capable of shifting between roles on the left or the right, and he can even play as a central playmaker if needed.
This is especially valuable if Barcelona manages to sign Philippe Coutinho as well. With Dembele or Coutinho in the team, Valverde’s most potent setup would be a 4-2-3-1 with Coutinho on the left, Dembele on the right and Messi behind Suarez. If no other wingers arrive, then Dembele switches to the left, Messi stays on the right and Suarez is the striker, which is also an extremely dangerous attack.
Dembélé’s arrival will have an overwhelmingly positive effect on the squad. The only player who might hang his head coming into the first training session after the international break is Gerard Deulofeu, who has been on an emotional roller coaster in the past couple of months. He has gone from reluctantly returning to provide sporadic cover for MSN to being the best in-house replacement for Neymar and starting the first two games of the season and now back to backup duty behind a forward line that will likely start every game of importance.
From the manager’s point-of-view, this can only be a good thing. Deulofeu and Denis Suarez can now be his impact subs and spot starters on either wing, and hopefully Aleix Vidal will now be utilized solely as a reserve right back. Given Paco Alcacer’s unconvincing form, the only hole on the forward depth chart is a reliable backup striker, but there is still a chance Alcacer comes good this season.
It is unfortunate that lot of unbecoming drama took place behind the scenes to force this move, but Barcelona have finally managed to secure one of the most exciting players in Europe in Ousmane Dembélé. He is a young and exciting player with so much to look forward to, and he is also a massive fan of the club, so there is good reason to believe that the duration of his development and prime will take place at the Nou Camp.
There will be growing pains as Dembélé adapts to the squad and his new superstar status, but if the board can manage another attacking signing before the window closes, then the Neymar money will have been well spent and then some.