Ousmane Dembélé turned 23 years old on Friday and, like many 23-year-olds out there during lockdown, he plays FIFA and Football Manager, and eats junk food sometimes.
Except he’s not a typical 23-year-old, is he?. He’s a professional footballer for Barcelona and a French international who has a €105m price tag on his head. He appears disengaged and immature, or so the tabloids love tell us. He has a knack for scoring goals when it really matters, and sometimes that’s priceless. In a way, it’s almost ironic that he’s constantly saving the people who are trying to ‘save’ him.
There’s no disputing his injury list is rather extensive. Since joining Barcelona in 2017, Dembélé has missed a total of 99 games due to injury.
There’s no dodging some parts of his immaturity either. One time, Dembélé didn’t turn up for training and the club couldn’t get hold of him. Turns out he tried to blag a stomach ache but, when the doctor arrived at his house, there was no sign of any illness. It later emerged – according to reports emanating from club sources – from he’d been up all night playing video games and overslept. Biggest immaturity there is that he didn’t go full Ferris Bueller, frankly.
The problem is that elite level football optimises the body to its limits on a weekly basis. But as players become near superhuman in terms of speed and stamina, they also stress their bodies in ways that are only sustainable with great amounts of care.
In some ways, to ridicule Dembélé for a failure beyond his control, or to suggest that his fragility is his own fault, is somewhat unreasonable.
We need to scratch beneath the surface with this ambidextrous generational talent. His pure talent shines through, and is there for everyone to see. 31 goal involvements in his last season at Dortmund can tell you that.
Aged 23 and mixing it with the likes of Messi and Suarez, his agility and change of pace is devastating, something that’s been unrivalled since the days of Ronaldinho. He’s been likened to Iniesta for his game changing moments.
One night in Madrid says it all. It was the 90th minute, Diego Costa had scored the only goal and Diego Simeone was conducting the crowd in the most Simeone way. Jordi Alba found Messi, who poked it to Dembélé who controlled, cut back and slotted through Jan Oblak’s legs. He’d done it again.
Admittedly, scoring an important goal here and there isn’t going to cut it at a club like Barcelona. Things will have to change but the boy has got talent. Bags of it. Hopefully, he can give himself a time limit on his Xbox and a specific training regime and he can see him go.