Where did it go wrong for Barca’s £97m man Dembele?

In 2017, Ousmane Dembele became the second most expensive player in the world. Four years on, he faces being frozen out of the last six months of his Barcelona contract.

When the 24-year-old arrived at the Nou Camp, he did so as one of football’s hottest young prospects. But his spell at Barcelona has lurched from one issue to another, blighted by injury, inconsistency and attitude problems, to the point where the relationship between the two sides has totally disintegrated.

Without a new home found in the January transfer window, Dembele now faces the prospect of seeing out the final months of his five-year contract exiled from the first-team squad. He was told by officials he would not play for the club again last week as a result of contract talks stalling over a new deal, and took to Instagram to hit out against “blackmail” before also firing back at accusations he had not been committed to Barca.

There was a time when Dembele was regarded as one of the game’s brightest talents with the world at his feet. “Dembele is a better player than Neymar,” insisted Josep Maria Bartomeu, then club president, in 2019. “He’s at Barca, and he is better.”

The financial power in European football was shifting by the time Bartomeu had broken Barcelona’s transfer record in 2017 to sign the promising French 20-year-old from Borussia Dortmund for a fee just shy of £100m.

Dembele’s move to the Nou Camp would’ve been the most expensive transfer in history but for the deal which set his move in motion. Earlier, that same summer, PSG’s eye-watering capture to bring Barca’s Neymar to France for £198m – almost £100m more than the Frenchman – set an almost unimaginable ceiling of wealth for other clubs to attempt to match.

It marked a concerning mirror for Barca. In 2003 they had spent €30m to sign Ronaldinho from PSG, with the Spanish giants able to pluck one of the best players in the world from France with their stature and rich history.

Losing Neymar was not the exact moment the relationship between both clubs shifted, but it was symbolic. And Bartemou, whose reign would be defined by his obsession with public approval fuelled by lavish spending levels which would financially cripple the club, felt compelled to act.

“Everyone was waiting for Barcelona’s reaction,” Carles Rupierez, of Catalonian newspaper La Vanguardia, told Sky Sports. “They could not be seen to sit by idly. At the time, Klopp was not selling [Philippe] Coutinho, and knowing how much Barca had made from Neymar, Dortmund were never going to let Dembele go on the cheap.

“In the end, they ended up paying a surcharge for him, knowing full well he was not worth that amount.”

There’s a certain irony that four and a half years on, with Dembele’s spell a relative disaster and with considerably fewer La Liga starts than millions of pounds spent on him, PSG were so interested in a Deadline Day move to take on the Barcelona cast-off and save them paying his final six months of unwanted wages.

Chelsea are also eyeing up a summer move, but that still leaves a potential solution almost half a year away.

It didn’t have to end like this. Even though Barca paid over the odds in 2017, they were still signing one of Europe’s hottest young talents, whose huge potential is still waiting to be realised.

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Dembele will stay at Barcelona despite late interest from Chelsea.

“Extreme-speed runs, wonderful dribbles, Ousmane Dembele has long won the hearts of Dortmund,” wrote German newspaper Bild in January 2017, only six months after he had joined them from Ligue 1 side Rennes, with Europe’s elite beginning to cast their eye on this lightning-quick, skilful youngster.

A goal and an assist in the German Cup semi-final win over Bayern Munich in April only heightened the buzz around his potential. So did his opener in the final. But by the time Barcelona were convinced to break their transfer record to sign him, the same red flags which would hamper his career at the Nou Camp were already waving high.

“It is not that Ous is making fun of us, he simply declines to do his job,” said Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke after the Frenchman went on strike to force through his move to Spain. “We met up with Barca officials one day and our valuations were very far apart. The next, he failed to turn up for training – the timing of these events is very curious.”

Although that defiance would play a part in Dembele’s downfall in La Liga, other issues outside the control of either the player or club have worked to blight his time at Barcelona.

Injuries have followed him around like a shadow since the day he touched down at El Prat Airport. Barely three weeks after signing for the club, he was left in a wheelchair after rupturing a thigh during his first league start and did not feature again for nearly four months.

Over time, things would only get worse. Prolonged hamstring issues would come to a head in 2019/20, when Dembele was only fit enough to feature nine times all season for club or country.

However, that only served to make the frustration all the worse that when he was available, the flying French winger never came close to fulfilling his obvious potential.

“The injuries have weighed on him in that he has missed so many games,” said Rupierez. “But it is not just that. When he has been able to play, he has produced so few memorable performances, or games where he has saved the team.

“He shone in the Spanish Super Cup in 2018, and scored a wonderful goal against Valladolid in April last year. But there is little more to remember.”

Those red flags have a lot to do with it. Ever since he was thrust into the spotlight of both playing for Barcelona and the mammoth price tag now associated with him, Dembele found himself in the news more regularly for his off-the-field exploits than anything he has done on the pitch.

Spanish newspaper AS lifted the lid on his issues in November 2018, revealing his absence from Barca’s defeat to Real Betis the previous week had not been due to a stomach bug, as they had publicly announced, but because he had missed training after staying up all night playing video games with his friends.

“Barcelona fear his gaming disorder is ruining his career at the club,” it wrote. It would not be the last story to question his commitment, with further leaks suggesting he had fired the chef laid on for him by the club in favour of a fast-food diet which was doing little to help with his fitness issues.

The press reports wouldn’t stop. In 2019, news of yet another hamstring lay-off was compounded with suggestions Dembele had not told Barcelona about the injury, and exacerbated the problem by spending a night sleeping on an airport sofa on his way to Senegal.

“He shone in the Spanish Super Cup in 2018, and scored a wonderful goal against Valladolid in April last year. But there is little more to remember.”

Journalist Carles Rupierez on Dembele’s Barcelona spell

The player himself has consistently denied any serious wrongdoing. In a rare public interview, he admitted he had “made some mistakes” but denied an obsession with unhealthy eating or video games.

Perhaps the full truth will never come out, but the fact of Barcelona’s £97m investment leaving under such a cloud will remain a source of embarrassment for both the player and the club.

“All of the coaches who he has worked under have thought they could turn him around, because he has such quality,” Rupierez said. “At times he has seemed that football is not his priority. He does not understand that the demand in Barcelona is not that of Rennes or Borussia.”

Can he finally reach the levels he promised when racing down the wing at the Westfalenstadion, the potential which convinced Barcelona to spend so much on him? “That’s the million-dollar question,” he added. “His potential is right up there, and we have only seen the tip of the iceberg.”

Dembele’s career risks sinking like the Titanic after a troubled spell at Barcelona – and with a bleak second half of the season ahead for the Frenchman, time will tell how, and if, he can finally steer his career back on track.