As the new year begins, a lot of people in the Barcelona fanbase are guilty of piling unfair expectations on Ousmane Dembele’s shoulders. As his return to the fields edges closer, I will be the first to admit that I belong to that category. His signing in the summer was greeted with a lot of optimism, as grueling and tiring as the process of the transfer may have been. And there’s plenty of talent there to warrant that optimism; plenty of potential to justify the hopes and dreams piled on him. Those expectations have persisted through the difficult hamstring injury that he sustained early on.
And while many may think that the team has lacked some offensive sparkle this season, many also believe that the Frenchman will bring that back once he returns. For that reason, then, I think this is a good time to have a conversation about him, and the level of realism in our expectation towards him. It’s a good time, also, to remind ourselves to curb the enthusiasm we’re feeling in the pit of our stomachs every time we see him train with the rest of the team. Not because he isn’t still talented, skilled, quick, exciting, and so on and so forth; but because he’s still a 20-year-old kid who hasn’t played a single full match with his new team.
But even before talking about Dembele, it’s worth talking about where Barcelona stands at this moment. Valverde’s project is worth discussing in its own right, and what happens to that project and setup when Dembele joins it is another interesting viewpoint to take. In most matches this season (12 in La Liga, according to WhoScored), Valverde has set up his team in a 442. It’s a formation that sometimes causes surprisingly strong negative reactions in the fanbase; reactions which sometimes ignore the fact that it hasn’t been what you would call a traditional 442, and one can find good explanations for why it has been deployed. What can also be forgotten too often is that formations are just numbers on a paper, and if, for example, a team outplays the reigning European Champions at their own stadium and wins 0-3, those numbers on the paper are the least important thing of all. But in any case, for a couple of additional reasons, I don’t think the idea of Valverde’s 442 should be frowned upon as much as it has been frowned upon.
Firstly, when we talk about football and systems and formations, it’s necessary to take into account the context in which managers make these decisions. Dembele has been injured effectively all season, and Deulofeu’s performances have been sub-par. In other words, Valverde has not been able to use the only two natural wingers in the squad.
One could make the argument that Paco Alcacer should have played more, and perhaps that has been true on some occasions, but here’s what I think is the second important contextual factor to be mindful of. Valverde came into a team that, in the knockout stages in the Champions League last season, conceded a total of 8 goals in 4 games. In the Supercup against Madrid, which came around before Valverde had barely had time to introduce himself to everyone at the club, they conceded 5 goals in two games. So clearly, the urgent priority was to, in short, make the team not leak goals.
That’s where Paulinho and the 442 come in: In possession Paulinho plays a bit like a forward, making dashing runs into the box. But when the opponent has the ball, he makes monstrous efforts in pressing, and drops back to form a midfield line of four. It hasn’t removed all problems, but as Luis Suarez, among others, has said, the lines are now closer together, which also allows for the team to press as a unit. This is the exact opposite of what, for example, happened against PSG in Paris last season, when there were half-hearted individual efforts to press, which PSG was essentially able to walk through.
Thirdly, and finally, it has to be acknowledged that Paulinho has been better than anyone could have predicted. Playing him will always present a trade-off, because he’s not the most talented in possession, his touch isn’t exactly silky, and he can’t really beat players one on one. But he’s very good at two key things: the previously mentioned pressing, and arriving in the box at the exact right moment. Valverde knows exactly what he gets and doesn’t get from him. In that, he’s a player that any coach would like.
So if the 442 has worked so well, given the circumstances, and if it also gives the team a numerical advantage in the midfield, how does Dembele figure into all of this? How does Valverde integrate a winger into his setup, without completely breaking said setup? It is true that there have been games this season where the team hasn’t created an abundance of chances, and has looked somewhat underwhelming. Those games were mostly early-season games, but it’s still true that especially when Messi isn’t inspired, the team doesn’t sparkle. Dembele can bring speed, explosiveness, unpredictability. But the question isn’t whether or not Dembele is a good enough player to add plenty to the team’s offense; the question is how the balance of the team can be recalibrated if and when a winger takes the place of a midfielder.
A lot of this will depend on Dembele himself. If he is willing to drop back to a defensive shape resembling a 442 – not unlike Neymar sometimes did in the biggest games – and track back to help his fullback, there’s no reason the team can’t be solid with him on the pitch instead of, say, Paulinho. It might require a bit of an adaptation period for the team, but the good thing is that with a 9-point cushion in the league, there’s even a little bit of wiggle room. In addition, judging from what Valverde has already gotten out of a team that was written off as “finished” at the end of last season, the evidence is there to suggest that he can bring out the best of what he has available. And also importantly, there’s no reason to believe Dembele couldn’t or wouldn’t take on this defensive workload, or that he would have attitude problems. He’s also quick enough to close opponents down quickly in the pressing phase.
Perhaps even more interesting is how the game will change in possession. If we assume that Dembele replaces Paulinho, or any other midfielder, really, the offensive setup changes significantly. But in the case of Paulinho it’s especially intriguing, because most of Barcelona’s offensive prowess has come from one of two places: the Alba-Messi connection, or deep midfield runs from Paulinho. Remove Paulinho and add Dembele, and Barcelona’s offense becomes more likely to create from the wings. In other words, adding Dembele in this setup would likely create a sort of hybrid between Valverde-ball and Lucho-ball: A team that is more possession-oriented, but also has creative, one on one power out wide.
The best case scenario is that it won’t be too dependent on either: It won’t rely too heavily on a player (Neymar/Dembele) to beat his man out wide to create advantages, but it also won’t lack the cutting edge after long spells of possession. But theory is easier than practice, and no one should be surprised if we still see a 442 with four midfielders in a lot of games, with Dembele as a supersub. That setup has been worked to a level where it gives the team a solid foundation to build on, and it definitively won’t be discarded entirely.
It also can’t be expected that one 20-year-old would change this setup immediately, or that he would immediately and single-handedly bring spark and shine to the team. He can, but rather than treating him as a star-player returning from injury, he should be treated as a new signing arriving in the middle of the season, who will require an adaptation period both as a part of the tactical setup, and as an individual trying to make his mark on the team.
Dembele’s most important immediate task, then, isn’t putting the team on his back, scoring an abundance of goals and leading the attack like he did at Dortmund. Rather, the priority should be for him to, bit by bit, start feeling important in the team, build connections with his teammates, and maybe get some goals here and there to build confidence.
What is comforting ahead of the second half of the season is that Valverde has proven to be a calm, yet firm manager who understands the strengths and weaknesses of his players, and sets up his team accordingly. The way he has talked about Dembele is also comforting: there’s no rush, and no risks will be taken in his re-integration. Frankly, Valverde has shown great aptness in guiding the team towards a post-Neymar era, and there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t also bring the most out of Dembele’s abilities and harness them to the use of the collective.