Ousmane Dembele’s long injury layoff has done little for his prospects of game-time within Ernesto Valverde’s team at the Camp Nou this season.
Whilst those at the club insist they remain comfortable over the Frenchman’s situation, it’s never a good look for a team to have two players who cost over 100 million euros each on the bench.
This is exactly what happened in Barcelona’s clash with Eibar on Saturday. Despite emerging as winners by a 2-0 margin, the Catalan giants caused a stir by leaving both Dembele and Coutinho on the bench.
Dembele, you could argue, was a more understandable decision because of his fitness battles, however the fact that Coutinho was left on the bench just days before Los Cules’ Champions League clash with Chelsea despite being cup-tied for the competition was alarming.
With specific regards to Dembele’s situation, there are a number of factors that are working against the former Stade Rennes prodigy at this precise moment, one of which is the success the team has enjoyed this term.
Valverde has utilised a 4-4-2 system, mainly in response to Dembele’s injury, yet this formation has seen the club go through the LaLiga season without defeat to this point. Lionel Messi has been able to act as the team’s creative hub just behind Luis Suarez, whilst the Uruguayan has been able to work as a lone forward.
This formation has helped Paulinho settle in at the Camp Nou, his late runs into the penalty area have given the team a different dimension and his tally of eight league goals suggests as much.
Dembele arrived as Neymar’s replacement within a 4-3-3, the plan was to ease the former Borussia Dortmund winger into life at Barcelona, however his injury meant that Valverde’s 4-4-2 remained in place, partly due to the inconsistency of the now departed Gerard Deulofeu.
Upon his return to full fitness, Dembele suffered another injury setback and this has set the alarm bells sounding around the club. Paul Pogba’s long layoff from the same complaint disrupted Manchester United’s season significantly and he is still feeling the effects of that ailment at the moment.
Barcelona are committed to helping Dembele reach his full potential with the club, it’s not a case that the 2017/18 season has been classed as a write-off for the 20-year-old, but there is certainly a willingness to keep things going as they are for the remainder of the campaign.
Tuesday’s Champions League tie at Stamford Bridge showed the deficiencies of the system without a player as penetrating as Dembele.
For much of the match, Chelsea’s incredibly disciplined defensive line kept Messi and Suarez at bay, the sheer number of players in the central areas drowned the visitors and limited their creativity. It’s worth noting that Los Cules’ priceless away goal only came from an awful Andreas Christensen mistake.
A player of Dembele’s dynamism could have made the difference, a real lack of width plagued Barcelona on Tuesday evening, however the club recorded a quite fantastic result, something that will keep Valverde from making a tactical shift to accommodate Dembele.
The former Athletic Club coach doesn’t yet fully trust the young Frenchman, yet he isn’t being given the opportunity to earn the Spaniard’s trust.
Depending on how far Barcelona go in the Champions League, Dembele may be given a chance to play in domestic matches, though it’s likely that it won’t be until pre-season when he is fully integrated into a 4-3-3 formation.
The current sticky situation the talent finds himself in should act as a cautionary tale to other young talents. Dembele’s absolutely best moment came at the end of the 2016/17 season when Pogba, Kylian Mbappe and Dembele himself tore England apart in an international friendly.
Gareth Southgate’s charges could barely get near their French opponents and Les Bleus looked like instant World Cup favourites. Less than a year later and you feel it would be impossible for Didier Deschamps to select the winger in the squad he takes to Russia.
Despite their well publicised club motto ‘Mes Que Un Club’, Barcelona remain a business at the end of the day and there will be no doubt that the bean counters at the club will be concerned at Dembele’s situation.
Not only isn’t he performing for the team, he is rapidly losing value the longer he is kept in the wilderness.
There is such a talented player there, he needs to be nurtured and if Barcelona can get the best out of him, then Neymar’s departure won’t be the long-term issue it was previously made out to be.
For the moment, results are keeping this situation under wraps, as long as the Blaugrana are winning the Dembele issue is neatly hidden. However, with Atletico Madrid hitting form and Barcelona’s deficiencies being highlighted in a high profile match, the club may soon decide that the approach to Dembele needs to change.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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