As the Ligue 1 season winds down, storylines are starting to slowly dwindle down to a core trio: the race for the last Champions League spot is still as tight as when we last covered it (disclaimer: Finishing in the 3rd CL spot in Ligue 1 currently means you have to go through two playoff rounds to get to the group stage. No Ligue 1 team has made it past two rounds of CL qualifying since this started happening in 2013-14), PSG are staking their claim as possibly the greatest Ligue 1 squad ever, and Ligue 1’s poor showing in the Europa League has their coefficient dangerously teetering towards losing their 3rd CL spot.

Rennes are one of those teams that in theory have enough talent to finish in the top three. For a Ligue 1 side, they’re isn’t a shortage of attacking options. Paul-Georges Ntep hasn’t progressed quite as much as some had hoped for a variety of reasons but he’s only 23 and has high upside. The dream of Yoann Gourcuff recapturing what he once had at Bordeaux is dead but he’s still a decent player when healthy while Juan Quintero has put up decent creation numbers in only ~800 minutes this season. Despite the squad at hand, their attacking numbers range from mediocre to bad which could be a product of having substandard managing.

Perhaps the most shocking thing with Rennes this season is there’s a good argument to be had that none of those players I mentioned are Rennes’ best player. Ligue 1 is known for producing great talent through their academies and Ousmane Dembele could be the next one to add to that list. 1124 minutes is a small sample and it would be rash to make steadfast proclamations. Trying to project the ability of a player to blend into a different league is also tough to contextualize. Ligue 1 is notorious for being slower paced and though this season there have been numerous former Ligue 1 players who have transitioned well into the PL, you still can’t really know. For every Dimitri Payet, there’s a Florian Thauvin. For every Max Gradel, there’s a Remy Cabella.

Having said all that, you can’t help but get excited at the potential Dembele’s got. I could only find 2-3 matches featuring Dembele that were of significant length so I can’t come up with a definitive scouting report on him but from what I’ve seen of him, he’s quite possibly the best dribbler in Ligue 1. There was this sequence versus Caen last week that would’ve been the goal of the season.

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I could name maybe four other players in France who could pull off that sequence of events. Dembele is averaging 5.5 completed dribbles per 90 this season. That’s not a misprint. It’s an absurd number that actually puts him ahead of everyone in Europe who’s played at least 1000 minutes this season. Higher than Neymar, Messi, Hazard, Lucas Moura. All the usual suspects you would assume to be #1 are behind Dembele.

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At just 18 years old, he’s producing offense at a rate that’s quite rare. With at least 1000 league minutes played in an attacking position this season, there’s only two other players in the top five leagues under the age of 20 who have a shot contribution per 90 rate of at least four: Dele Alli and Timo Werner. That’s it, and you could even argue that what Dembele is doing is even more impressive because both Tottenham and Stuttgart are healthy shot generating teams while Rennes are almost the opposite.

If we look historically at U20 players in the top five leagues, the list is really short. Using the same criteria and extending it from 2009-15, I found 39 players that have contributed at least 4 shots per 90. Some of the results were really interesting.

Shot Contribution(using Opta data)

Look at that list and it’s got a good amount of star talent. Lukaku should morph into a top five striker in a couple of years. Sterling has probably plateaued since 2013-14 but he still has massive potential. Mario Gotze’s career has also stalled over the last two seasons but he was one of the highest rated young players when he was with Dortmund while Lamela and Carrasco are very solid wingers. There’s some duds in this list: Lucas Ocampos and Juan Iturbe look like potential lost causes, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Riviere are probably going to grade out as decent rotation players, novels could be written about Balotelli’s career and both Januzaj and Berahino have struggled for various reasons after bright debut seasons. Even then though, you look up and down this list and more players have turned out to be solid contributors than they have busts. And again, this kid won’t turn 19 until the middle of May and his production would rank right around the upper tier which is insane.

I wish I could take credit for the following comparison but I sadly can’t. I recorded a podcast with Julien Assuncao and he said that Ousmane Dembele was this season’s Clinton N’Jie; a fast paced winger who puts up promising offensive numbers in his first season in Ligue 1. I wrote about N’Jie last season and I was high on him even with his deficiencies and numbers being boosted by substitute effects because his pace and ability to get shots from good locations was really good. He obviously hasn’t had the same success for Tottenham so far because of injury but I still think he could be a quality LW/SS in the EPL.

The scary thing with Dembele is he’s nearly four years younger than N’Jie and having a season that’s pretty much on par but without the benefit of playing with the likes of Nabil Fekir and Alexandre Lacazette.

Player Shots per 90 xG per 90 wCC+ NPG per 90 KP per 90
Dembele 2.7 0.360 121.7 0.4 2.2
N’Jie 2.9 0.548 118.7 0.4 1.5

As always with a Ligue 1 player, the question will turn towards when will he move on for greener pastures. In theory, Dembele has some of the physical attributes to already make the jump to a higher quality league. He is the best dribbler in Ligue 1 and even with a jump in quality of opposition, he should still be able to get past defenders regularly. Despite being at times the focal point for Rennes, his dispossession numbers are actually quite respectable and i’d probably say that you could make a very convincing argument that he’s a more rounded player than N’Jie was when he left for Tottenham.

But just like N’Jie, I think it would be best if he stayed in Ligue 1 for another season or two. I’m the furthest thing from a qualified trainer, but it could be in his best interest to put on a little bit of strength to combat stronger defenders and the odd dirty challenge. Rennes are one of the few clubs in Ligue 1 with a little bit of money to play with and finishing 3rd in Ligue 1 would mean that the faint hopes of qualifying for the CL group stage would lead to Rennes upgrading the squad around him so he isn’t compelled to leave.

More than anything, he gets to be a main contributor on a decent team at a very young age which is something I highly doubt he’d get to experience if he went abroad. Say he followed his fellow compatriots and went to the PL, who in hell is prepared to have a 19 year old winger be a huge part of their side immediately while vying for Europe? Southampton is the only team I could somewhat see doing this just because they could be on the lookout for a Sadio Mane replacement and maybe their black box has Dembele as a transfer target.

1124 minutes does not make a career and being compared to a young Cristiano Ronaldo won’t help with calming down expectations for a teenager. In Dembele’s case though, it would be pretty surprising if he didn’t turn out to be a very good player. His production is right up there with most U20 players and he’s younger than anyone in that group. There isn’t much divergence between his statistical value and visually. Dele Alli is the only guy out there producing at a comparable clip to Dembele, and he’s doing it in a system that’s much more advantageous to racking up shot contribution numbers. Calling a player a phenomenon nine times out of ten is a fairly hyperbolic statement, but there’s the chance that Ousmane Dembele is the 1/10 scenario that actually lives up to the hype.

  • Ron IsNotMyRealName

    No way a PL team should allow him to stay at Rennes another year unless it’s on a Divock Origi-like deal where he’s already signed.

    As far as who Dembele could play for in the PL, probably just about anyone, but certainly he could supplant Milner and/or Lallana at Liverpool, which would use his dribbling ability, positional versatility and also his nose for winning the ball back. Southampton would be a waste of his time.

    • Keenan

      He isn’t going to the EPL. He’s off to Paris or Spain.

      • Ron IsNotMyRealName

        He’d be daft to do that. No matter how good he is, he’s not getting in the starting XI at PSG. Barca or Real.

        • Keenan

          And yet, all of the above clubs are scouting him.

          • Ron IsNotMyRealName

            Real Madrid scouted Martin Odegaard too. Is he starting? Is he even close to starting?

            RM has Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale. Jese Rodriguez can’t even get into their XI and he’s probably a 10G/10A guy at least in the PL. It’s no insult to say someone wouldn’t get into RM’s starting attack.

            Same for Barca and PSG. PSG also already has Augustin, so Dembele might prefer to go somewhere else for that reason.

            His smart move is to go to the best club at which he can regularly start games. I think Liverpool would be a great choice, as he would relegate Lallana or Milner to the bench or out of the club, and because Klopp gives his attackers a lot of freedom and Dembele has a lot of versatility position-wise. A healthy Liverpool is showing its strength now with 3 straight league wins. If they don’t nick 4th this year, they’ll certainly be in position for it next.

          • Keenan

            – Martin Odegaard was 16 and hadn’t played a professional match. Dembele is 18 and leading a top French side while lighting the world afire. Hardly similar situations.

            – Ronaldo is 31, Benzema 28, Bale 26.

            – Zlatan is 34, Cavani is 29, Di Maria is 28. Augustine is one player, and as far as I know, the 4-3-3 generally features 3 attackers.

            His best move is to stay as far away from the declining, tactically inept EPL as possible. Fortunately he’s good enough that clubs with more clout than the top clubs in the Premier league are after him. Ultimately, he’ll end up in Paris, Bayern, or Spain for this reason. My guess is Paris as he was born just outside of the city.

          • Ron IsNotMyRealName

            Yeah that’s the point. Only Zlatan is leaving, and he’ll be replaced by Cavani moving inside and probably Lucas Moura taking his place. No playing time available at Real or Barca, or Bayern either if you want to go there. He’s not beating out any of those people at this point in his career.

            If Dembele wants to continue his development on its current trajectory, he needs to play a lot of games and minutes.

            Don’t think I’ve ever heard of Jurgen Klopp being called tactically inept. First time for everything, I guess.

          • Keenan

            Point is, top clubs are smart enough not to leave themselves wholly dependent upon aging players going into the future. Instead, they identify top young players they can hopefully develop enough to slot into positions of need once their stars move on. Dembele, being 18 and only 4 months a pro, fits this mold perfectly. When he is 23-24 and going into his prime, Zlatan, Cavani, Benzema, Ronaldo, and Di Maria will all be on the wrong side of 30 and likely gone from their current clubs.

            English football as a whole is tactically inept, from the top professional clubs to the local academies. Hence, they struggle developing top players, routinely fail internationally, and spend billions importing players only to end up with a mediocre product. One manager, or even a few, cannot change a culture.

          • Ron IsNotMyRealName

            And when he’s 23-24, he can move to a PSG or Barca and go straight into the lineup if he keeps developing. If he goes there to ride the pine, he’ll never be what he could be.

            You’re completely full of it.

          • Ron IsNotMyRealName

            btw, case in point for players needing the right environment to develop…Raheem Sterling. He’s worse than he was last year at Liverpool because City doesn’t focus on developing players.

          • Ketriel

            Alternatively, he’s not the focal point or been asked to expand his game as he was last year as he was asked to play wingback, striker and flipped around the wings. Moreover you fail to qualify what you mean by tactically inept. Leicester at the top of the league with a well disciplined counterattacking 4-4-2 and Tottenham with their high pressing style are at the summit of the table. Maybe it is no juego de posicion but the most tactically adept teams are in fact doing the best.

            So please if the parity of league is ruining the traditional top teams this year that doesn’t mean they athe league as a whole is tactically inept.

          • Ron IsNotMyRealName

            Did you reply to the wrong person? I said nothing about tactically inept.

            Bottom line is if he goes anywhere other than Liverpool or Dortmund, he’s making a mistake. Those are the two clubs where he would get the best combination of wages, time on the pitch, and development attention from first team coaches.

            Klopp has many of his top academy players regularly training with the first team at Melwood now. That is how much he cares about young player development and knowing how they are progressing.

          • Ketriel

            Yep, I meant to reply to Keenan. I think everything you said is eminently reasonable.