Ousmane Dembélé could be a Barcelona player. Not because Borussia Dortmund might soon cave under the weight of a massive fee – rumored to be well above €100 million – but because Barcelona were on the verge of signing the French winger, back when he was a mere €15 million Ligue 1 prospect at Rennes last summer.
Dembélé has professed his love for Barcelona and made clear his dream is to play at the Nou Camp on many occasions, yet he opted not to make the jump from a mid-table Ligue 1 side to Barcelona last year, instead choosing player-development powerhouse Borussia Dortmund as a buffer club. With Neymar and Messi on the flanks, Dembélé knew he would struggle for game time at Barça, so he chose a more reliable platform in Dortmund to better prepare himself for a move to Catalonia.
It’s all very logical, in theory, only now Dortmund expect Barcelona to pay heavily for a year’s worth of their grooming expertise, and they would indeed prefer to keep the player as well, because their club has ambitions too.
It was Déjà vu for Barça this summer when 19-year-old FC Metz winger Ismaila Sarr, an exciting prospect of Dembélé’s ilk, turned down a move to Barcelona. Barcelona were said to be in contact with Sarr and made a competitive offer for him, but Sarr preferred to move to Rennes because he too thought going to Barcelona was too big a step up from his current club.
It should infuriate culés when these kinds of deals fall through. Although Sarr is right, going from Metz to Barcelona at his age would have been too big of a jump – just as going from Rennes to Barcelona at 19 would have been too much for Dembélé – Barça simply cannot afford to lose initial rights to these players on this basis. The board must do a better job of convincing young propsects like Dembélé and Sarr to commit to Barcelona in the long term, even if their short-term future will involve going out on loan or even playing for Barça B.
Barcelona should be well aware of this transfer policy, because Real Madrid have all but secured their future by utilizing it.
Real Madrid were able to sign potential-laden young players like Marco Asensio and Jesus Vallejo from Segunda Division clubs when they were both teenagers. If going from a team in the top level of French football to Barcelona is too big of a jump, then surely going from a second division team to Madrid is a unwise leap as well.
But the players didn’t go straight into the Madrid first team, of course. Asensio and Vallejo spent each spent two seasons on loan – one with their previous clubs in the Segunda and another at a top division side (Espanyol for Asensio, Eintracht Frankfurt for Vallejo). Asensio is already on the cusp of being a world class player and Vallejo has shown a lot of promise, but even if they both turned out to be busts, what would Madrid have lost?
As we well know, Asensio cost Madrid a mere €4 million from Mallorca, and Vallejo cost only €6 million from Zaragoza. That’s €10 million invested into two promising players who they didn’t even have to use time or resources on to develop in house. Other clubs gave them the playing time to develop while Madrid waited for their returns with open arms, having already secured the players on longterm deals.
Now think back to Dembélé’s situation last summer.
Barcelona could have signed the player for €15 million; now Dortmund say they won’t sell for anything less than €150 million, or ten times what Barça could have paid a year ago. I understand the player had the final say, but why has Madrid been able to convince young prospects like Asensio and Vallejo to sign for the club as soon as possible and then go on loan until there is a spot for them in the first team, while Barcelona face incredibly inflated valuations for players they identified, but didn’t sign, in their embryonic stages?
Barça could have offered Dembélé the chance to stay at Rennes, or if he didn’t want that and instead wanted experience at a club at or near the Champions League level, I am sure Barcelona could have found a taker for him among the second or third tier of European football. Can you imagine Dembélé on loan at Monaco last season? Or Napoli? Maybe even Dortmund would have had him on loan. Obviously clubs who have players on loan have considerably less invested in the player and thus might not play them as much as they will their own talent, but at the end of the day, teams at that level are trying to win and I’m sure Dembélé would have had enough playing time to enable his development.
The benefit for the player is obvious. Dembélé did enough in one season at Dortmund to convince Barcelona he is worth a fee well above what they could have got him for, but say he wasn’t as impressive and he dropped off of Barcelona’s radar. Now a player who has dreamed of playing at the Nou Camp would surely be regretting not signing for Barcelona when he had the opportunity. Asensio and Vallejo didn’t give Madrid the chance to lose interest by securing a longterm commitment as soon as they started sniffing, and their bets paid off.
Let’s say Barcelona’s board entered this summer determined not to let another potential gem slip out of their hands like Dembélé did and convinced Sarr to join on a five-year deal. Even if Sarr spent all five years on loan and then left on a free at the end of his contract, I much prefer this transfer policy – betting on youth at €17 million – then being held hostage by these stepping stone clubs whose entire business model revolves around bringing prospects in, developing them and parading them out to the highest bidder.
Even €80 million for Dembélé, who it must be said is also very much a prospect, if not one of the two or three best in the world at his age (20), would be an overpay because the club could have very well made the same investment last summer for €65 million cheaper.
The important thing to remember is that Barça can do smart business regarding young players and prospects without abandoning their roots.
The bulk of Barcelona’s prospects, if the club is being run correctly, will always come from La Masia. But that doesn’t mean that the club shouldn’t be scouring the continent for cut-rate deals on prospects who fit their profile. The fact is, La Masia is light on highly-rated wing players at the moment (ironically, La Masia’s best winger left Barça B this summer for Monaco in search of playing time), and prospects like Dembélé and Sarr would have been perfect investments that wouldn’t have trampled on any of Barcelona’s homegrown talent.
This transfer window for Barcelona is not only unique to the club, it is unique in the history of football. No team has ever come into the amount of money Barça has after the Neymar transfer, and because teams know we have money in the bank and a gaping hole in the Gala XI, we can expect to pay a tax on any premium players.
The issues lie well before we got to this point, though. With better planning and more profitable ideologies, Barcelona could have had contingency plans in place that would have the club in a pleasant place going forward. Or, at the very least, in a spot where a stopgap solution like Alexis Sanchez or Angel Di Maria doesn’t look so bad because the prospects they are betting on have already signed up.
And with a more convincing closing argument, Barça could have had Dembélé’s signature well before it was worth a world record fee.