You know when you’re a kid, and you get that massive playset of Legos for Christmas? You think to yourself “this is it, man. I can build the castle over here, and the drawbridge will lead to the pizza city, and then the river will lead to the orc battlefield.” For once in your life, you have the means for which your grandest ambitions can be achieved. You’re young, you’re innocent, you’re satisfied by a product of capital. Well, Thomas Tuchel had that very same ‘pizza city’ experience at forty years old.
After his untimely departure from Dortmund, in a sports talk at a coaching school in Dubai, Tuchel walked people through that very experience. He spoke candidly about how in that final year, the one where Klopp cemented his place in Liverpool-Valhalla, he had all the tools to make his dream system complete. He envisioned the process of a goal coming from some combination of Ousmane Dembele linking up with Mario Gotze in a half space, who would then pick out Raphael Guerreiro, finally finding Pierre Emerick Aubameyang unmarked at the back post. That beautiful vision, or at least some version of it, actually materialize for a year at Dortmund, only to be liquidated after the season ended with only a German cup to show for it. For a year, everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
Mats Hummels would go on to join the machine that is Bayern Munich, Ilkay Gundogan would leave to the shores of Manchester, and Dembele would ascend into football heaven and link up with Lionel Messi at Barcelona. Though many players played significant parts in that extraordinary Dortmund side, Dembele’s experience as the teenager that dazzled Europe was one to remember, and yet it’s something that many seem to have forgotten just two years later.
To say that any recent Barcelona team is lacking in any part of the field is a bold statement f, but suggesting the same of the one that nearly went undefeated in La Liga last season seems, at first glance, to be concern trolling of the highest order. The Spanish champions might’ve gone yet another year watching their arch rivals lift a European title, but they made sure they did so with a seventeen point gap between them at home. Ernesto Valverde’s recalibration to the philosophy that won them their most recent treble, one that emphasized a sense of duality on and off the ball, proved to be exactly what they needed in a post-Neymar Catalonia- at least on the surface.
Though Barcelona were undoubtedly proficient in the league last season, they also ran well ahead of their numbers. They outperformed their expected goals by a 20 goal tally, scoring 96 goals from open play with an xG of just over 79.49.
On the defensive side they conceded 27 from open play with an xG conceded of just over 41.
Even with a once in a generation player like Messi to account for their attacking numbers, Barcelona should expect some regression to the mean. Unless, of course, they had one of the best young talents in the world acclimating to the demands of their manager warming the bench last season. Such a player might increase the team’s expected goal numbers even as the squad’s finishing returned to more normal levels.
It’s taken Dembele a full year to settle in at Barcelona. How much of that arduous journey to consistent involvement is his fault is an open question. He suffered from a string of injuries but, his inability to break into the team when he was finally fit led to doubts over his quality. The details of his transfer from Dortmund aren’t the most pleasant. Dembele’s willingness to skip practices following scuffles with teammates in order to facilitate the move isn’t the most promising indicator of the kind of personality one might want at a club. But, with four starts in four league games, Dembele finally seems to be settling into the club of his dreams. His lost year is behind him, and the talent that made Tuchel swoon, and Barcelona break the bank is coming through for all to see.
With a few crucial goals in both the league and Champions league, the most significant area of growth appears to be within his own tactical use. Dembele’s electric pace and a bi-pedality that is frankly terrifying have always made it seem like the most natural fit for his skillset would be on the wing. Under Tuchel his natural attributes shined bright in a system that sought to reap the benefits of positional play. By isolating Dembele and providing a variety of runners to pick out through the middle, Dembele’s 12 assists at just 19 years old were just the early signs indicators of his exceptional talent as a provider.
Perhaps even more exciting than his wing play were the flashes of experimentation at Dortmund that saw Dembele closer to the center of the front line.. Tuchel’s propensity for fluidity within the formation meant that a variety of players took up positions they were initially unfamiliar with.. , For Dembele that meant getting deployed in the half spaces to use his rare dribbling talents to devastating effect. Thankfully, this experiment has taken on a life of its own in Spain.
With Barcelona’s fullbacks more rigidly tasked with providing the width, Dembele’s fluidity across the front line is getting more out of him as a scoring outlet. Barcelona are one of the best teams in the world at their particular brand of possession football; a combination that’s increasingly potent as Messi and the crucial players around him, age like fine wine.
By flattening the opposition’s defensive through the aforementioned width, Suarez, Messi and Dembele alternate in making perfectly timed runs in behind the defensive line. And when one darts forward the other two, use their time and space on the ball to pick out a characteristically clever dinked ball. While this action is more a Messi trademark than anything else, the ability to find players free in the box is becoming infectious.
Despite fierce competition in forward areas, Dembele’s proficiency as a part of their attacking trio has meshed nicely with the hybrid role Philipe Coutinho has played as a left central midfielder. While it would be foolish to suggest that either of these new weapons could entirely replace the two that they’re most naturally filling the void for in Neymar and Iniesta, Dembele and Coutinho are making it difficult not to draw comparisons to the ones that came before them.
Another area where Dembele helps Barcelona is in their ability to be direct. Though the palpable difference between play styles across Europe’s top five leagues is often debated, the prominence of teams in La Liga with an aggressive PPDA rating is a reliable indicator that they’re willing to go after the league’s elite. While the most marketable league in the world had five teams with PPDA ratings under 10 last season, La Liga had fourteen. It’s in these games that Barcelona are often most seriously challenged. Last season, their defensively oriented 4-4-2 formation gave them a defensive shape to cope with some of the surprises that a high pressing team might create, but limited their options for escaping being clever high lines and pressing traps that pinned them in their own half.
Where Tuchel’s Dortmund looked to isolate, Valverde’s sophomore Barça looks to separate. Given that the defensive and midfield lines of their 4-3-3 are rife with talented players on the ball, Messi, Suarez, and Dembele often stop the opposition from maintaining an efficient pressing shape by pushing up to the defensive line and using the threat of a run in behind to keep them at bay. This also creates space between defensive and midfield lines for one of the front three to drop into and attack. The result is, more often than not, Messi Suarez and Dembele running entirely unchecked at a disheveled back four.
You didn’t have to be a Nostradamus to predict that Dembele moving to Barcelona was going to end in success. The fact that many were more than willing to doubt the twenty-one-year-old after just half a season of not being excellent is more reflective of the current impatient, hyper-accelerated news cycle, win right now at all costs football world than Dembele’s ability. It might’ve taken him some time, but, rest assured, Ousmane Dembele has arrived.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association