Ousmane Dembélé’s unlikely France comeback set for thrilling final act
Ousmane Dembélé is a player who drifts in and out of focus. While Kylian Mbappé explodes down the left flank for France, Dembélé is more of a gliding presence on the opposite side. Sometimes marking him is like trying to catch smoke. The France winger has this lovely way of floating up the right, a softness to the way he dips inside and out, and when he is in full flow he is a bewitching sight, so slippery as he unbalances defenders with his feints, body swerves and zigzagging dribbling.
Those are the moments when it is easy to see why Barcelona, wounded after losing Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain, spent £97m on Dembélé five years ago. The problem, though, is there have not been enough good times for the 25-year-old. Sometimes he looks special but he often lets games pass him by, underlining why he barely featured for France in the four years leading up to this World Cup.
It is a delicate balancing act. Not so long ago Dembélé, with honourable mentions to Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann, was the symbol of Barça’s financial excess. There were endless questions over his focus and poor timekeeping, and constant injury problems; at the start of 2022 you would have got long odds on him ending the year in France’s starting lineup in the World Cup final.
Yet here we are. France face Argentina at the Lusail Stadium and it would be a major surprise if Dembélé does not start on the right wing. The comeback story, if not quite complete, is moving in the desired direction.
Who knows how it will end? Four years ago Dembélé flattered to deceive when France became world champions. He was in the starting lineup when the tournament began but his performances during the group stage were disappointing and, having lost his place to Olivier Giroud before the knockout stage arrived, he was an unused substitute when France beat Croatia in the final.
But Dembélé, who also failed to make an impact at Euro 2020, is in a better place now. When he spoke to the media on Friday he looked at ease with himself. The former Borussia Dortmund star happily talked about playing with Lionel Messi at Barça, recalling how the Argentina captain urged him to dribble less and focus more on team play. He did not react badly when he was asked whether his increased maturity has been key to him forcing his way into Didier Deschamps’ plans.
“I feel really good,” said Dembélé, whose hopes of going to the World Cup looked slim when he was left out of France’s Nations League squad in June. “I’m happy my image has changed.”
It is about time the attention was on Dembélé for good reasons. Perhaps it will be him rather than Mbappé who makes the headlines against Argentina. After all, it is easy to forget how much hype surrounded him when he was a youngster. He was a wonderkid at Rennes and brilliant after moving to Thomas Tuchel’s Dortmund in 2016. A year later, though, everything changed. Barça came calling and Dembélé found the pressure difficult to handle. He stagnated. He was injured. He was a scapegoat for Barça’s decline, particularly when they lost Messi to PSG.
By the start of January this year, with his contract running down, Dembélé was cast as a villain in some quarters. However, although links with Chelsea offered hope of a reunion with Tuchel, he stayed at the Camp Nou. Barça’s manager, Xavi Hernández, valued the outsider, who responded by finishing last season with 13 assists in La Liga.
Xavi’s faith paid off. Dembélé could have left on a free in the summer but after some tense negotiations he stayed at Barcelona. He has pushed on since then, his five assists and four goals lifting the club to top spot in La Liga and earning Dembélé a seat on the plane to Qatar.
Like Xavi, Deschamps never fully lost faith. France’s manager has kept plugging away at Dembélé in Qatar. Fit enough to last beyond the 70th minute in five of six games, he has two assists and was impressive during the early stages of France’s quarter-final win against England, causing tactical problems for Luke Shaw with his movement and partnership with Griezmann.
The sense remains, though, that there is more to come. After starting promisingly against England Dembélé faded to the margins, becoming less effective when Shaw snapped in with more intensity. Then, given the chance to use his pace on the break against Morocco on Wednesday, Dembélé did little in attack. He had no shots and managed two successful dribbles. At one point he tried a cross and miskicked.
But with Mbappé given licence to do as he pleases on the left, the counter is that Dembélé is working for the collective and providing balance by being more restrained. He is tracking back, playing the Deschamps way, winning plaudits for providing Jules Koundé with defensive cover. “It’s important to help the team,” Dembélé said. “I will do what’s necessary.”
There was no dissent from Dembélé. Equally, he still wants to be more decisive in the final third. Scoring a goal would be nice, he added. “I want to be a protagonist in this World Cup,” Dembélé said. “Not a follower.” The final gives him an opportunity to lead the way.