COMMENT: Greedy. Tardy. And with an abysmal attitude. Ousmane Dembele. You’d want your club to run a hundred miles the other way if his agents made contact. Well, that is if all you did was take notice of the headlines…
On the surface, it’s a puzzler. Why would any club – and there’s quite a few – be taking a close look at Dembele given his track record? Indeed, why on earth were Manchester United so willing to settle on a fee for the Frenchman before his knee injury at last summer’s Euros?
Now fully fit, but with his contract running down, we’re getting more outrageous headlines. Despite his injury record. Despite lack of status inside the Barca dressing room. We’re hearing he and his agent have been demanding a package worth €540m over five years from Barca. The same Barca where the senior leadership group accepted taking wage cuts in order to fit new signings under the LaLiga’s imposed salary cap. Again, you see such claims and it’s baffling why the likes of United, Newcastle United and Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea are all in contact with Moussa Sissoko, Dembele’s agent.
But go a little deeper and you can begin to understand why Dembele, despite the disparaging stuff coming out of the Catalan press, is still so coveted. Okay, okay, on the face of it, the demands put forward by Sissoko are ridiculous. Particularly given the financial state of Joan Laporta’s Barca and given recent history – the Leo Messi disaster anyone? But if you can excuse Sissoko and Dembele for chancing their arm – no matter how it would look inside the dressing room – there’s a lot to like about Barca’s No7 and the determination he’s shown to turn his career around.
A good three years into his Nou Camp career and Dembele appeared a busted flush. A write-off – literally. The €145m signing from Borussia Dortmund was injury-prone. Inconsistent. And out of shape. We had stories of his home resembling a frat house. Of all night gaming benders. Irregular sleeping patterns. Fast food binges. It was a spiral. The club tried to intervene. Sissoko also. But it was to little effect.
Sources insisted Dembele wasn’t a bad kid. He wasn’t taking up booze or drugs. But he also wasn’t living as a modern pro. And there was a belief his injury problems were stemming from the way he was living his life away from the Joan Gamper training ground.
As mentioned, those inside Barca made attempts to shake Dembele. Directors. Coaches. Teammates. They all tried. But he was unmovable. And soon enough, Barca began letting it be known that offers would be considered.
Whether or not that was the jolt he needed. Dembele – with Sissoko and his family’s support – dramatically transformed his entire lifestyle before the start of the 2020/21 season. Friends and hangers-on were politely moved out. And in came the pros: Personal trainer Salah Ghaidi, a former 400m and 800m runner. Physio Jean Baptiste Duault, once of France’s athletics team. And chef Anthony Audebaud.
Six months in and Dembele was in the form of his life. Form which would earn him a recall to the France squad for the Euros.
“Physically I think I have changed,” Dembele stated at the time. “When I arrived here, I was very fragile.
“I was starting as a professional at Stade Rennais and Borussia Dortmund, I was very fragile, but I have come a long way and I found fitness coaches here and everything changed.”
But it was he who did it. As those frustrated at Barca had previously conceded, things would only change if Dembele wanted them to. And such a show of self-sacrifice and personal responsibility earned the ultimate reward – a France recall from the ever-so-difficult-to-impress Didier Deschamps.
“He is a player who showed his qualities very early on,” declared Deschamps, explaining Dembele’s return. “He’s still young. If we haven’t seen him for a while, it is because he was not spared from the injuries. By gaining in maturity, we perhaps make better choices. We are still talking about a player who has been at the top from a very young age.”
With this endorsement, suddenly Dembele was again en vogue. So much so that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United were prepared to better his Barca wages and cough up a fee to bring him to England last summer.
Of course, that was all scuppered by his collapse against Hungary. And he could’ve gone back into his shell. Returned to his old, safe ways. But the support crew remained in place. As did the attitude and new approach. And Dembele’s full recovery was achieved on schedule.
And this is why Sissoko’s phone has been burning red hot this month. United are still there. As are nouveau riche Newcastle. And there’s the chance of a reunion with his old coach at Borussia Dortmund as Chelsea make their move.
Dembele has options. And it’s why Sissoko, as much as it has upset Barca, has been so bold in negotiations. So much so that Mateu Alemany put Dembele up for sale last week via the press.
“We want players who are committed to the club and we have told him that he must leave the club as soon as possible,” declared Barca’s sporting director. “We expect Ousmane to be sold before January 31.”
With such a bombshell you’d be forgiven believing the headlines about attitude and greed. But look a little deeper and you’ll soon see there are reasons why so many clubs are now making their pitch to Sissoko about Ousmane Dembele.
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