Almost a year ago to the day, Barcelona’s squad were on a plane up to Bilbao, where they would be knocked out of the Copa del Rey at the round of 16 stage. Ousmane Dembele was not aboard.
Negotiations over Dembele’s contract extension had stalled earlier in the month and Barcelona’s sporting directors, led by Mateu Alemany, took an executive decision — the France winger would not be part of Xavi’s team to face Athletic. In the meantime, the club started working on how to put an end to Dembele’s time at the Camp Nou in the most profitable way for everyone involved.
A lot has changed at Barcelona 12 months.
Dembele was replaced in the 84th minute in Barcelona’s 1-0 home win over Real Sociedad in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals on Wednesday night. The 25-year-old had scored the tie’s only goal and put in a dazzling overall performance, which earned him a standing ovation from the crowd as he walked off the pitch.
“I’m so happy for Dembele, because he’s done something that is not easy in Barcelona — to turn the omelette onto the other side,” Xavi said afterwards. That had nothing to do with Dembele’s cooking skills — it is a peculiar Spanish idiom used by the Barcelona boss that can be translated as “turning the tables”.
Dembele’s skills warmed the frozen spectators at the Camp Nou. An attendance of 59,610 fans made for Barcelona’s worst turnout of the season — probably explained by this being a 9pm local time kick-off in one of the coldest weeks of the past year: it was 4C (39F) during the game, but felt even colder.
The tie unfolded relatively comfortably for Barcelona. Jesus Gil Manzano was the referee in charge — which was surprising, given he had sent off Robert Lewandowski in Barcelona’s game away at Osasuna before the World Cup break. That red card led to a three-match ban for the Poland striker.
Fans made their feelings clear by booing and aiming chants at Gil Manzano at the start of the game but this time, it was Real Sociedad who had a man dismissed. Brais Mendez was shown a straight red card in the 40th minute, following a VAR review, after he planted his studs on Sergio Busquets’ ankle.
“If you look at the VAR picture, as the referee did, it is a red card,” Real Sociedad manager Imanol Alguacil conceded.
Barcelona played more than 50 minutes with an extra man as a result, but they had already been the better team on the pitch when it was 11 vs 11, led from the first minute by the lively Dembele.
A big part of the Frenchman’s revival should be attributed to Xavi’s new preferred formation. Even though plenty of fans stayed away, the Barcelona manager did not take the quarter-final clash lightly – winning the Copa del Rey would be another valuable trophy for the legendary midfielder after claiming the Supercopa de Espana less than two weeks ago.
Xavi’s four leading midfielders were back in the line-up: Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, Gavi and Pedri. That meant it was a familiar starting XI to the one that inspired the 3-1 demolition of Real Madrid in that Supercopa final.
It is easy to see why this is fast becoming Xavi’s preferred system. It is one in which his brightest midfielders can connect and combine at will — and that is exactly what happened for 60 minutes last night. But it also allowed Dembele to put in his best performance yet in five and a half years at the Camp Nou.
The success of that system becomes clear if you go back to the last four matches in domestic competition in which Xavi has used it…
- October 23, the 11th gameweek of La Liga. Barcelona run riot against Athletic Bilbao in a 4-0 win. Pedri operates as a false winger while Dembele scores once and provides three assists.
- January 8, 16th gameweek of La Liga. Dembele scores the only goal in a 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid, with Pedri acting as an extra attacker again.
- January 15, Supercopa de Espana final. This is the only game in which Dembele, playing alongside the four midfielders, has not been involved in a goal, although it didn’t make too much difference. He had struggled with minor muscular problems in the build-up to this match.
- And finally, last night. Dembele’s winner demonstrated how he can be quicker than almost any opponent and how difficult it can be to read his movement — as goalkeeper Alex Remiro found as he ended up palming Dembele’s shot into his own net when he expected the winger to cross for Lewandowski.
There were still some scares for Barcelona. They could not finish off the game and struggled in the closing stages. Marc-Andre ter Stegen was their saviour again, and Real Sociedad striker Alexander Sorloth is unlikely to forget the open goal he missed in the 59th minute.
Dembele remained the star of the show.
It is no exaggeration to say Xavi has changed the 25-year-old’s life. Dembele has registered 40 goals and 41 assists in 177 appearances since joining as a highly rated youngster from Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2017. But it did not always look as if he could fulfil that huge potential at the Camp Nou.
Dembele has provided almost half of all his assists for the club (20) and a quarter of his goals with Xavi on the sidelines as coach (from 58 games) — in other words, 37 per cent of his Barcelona goal contributions have come from 33 per cent of his matches since Xavi became manager in November 2021. And even more important than the numbers is the belief Dembele is exhibiting.
“Ousmane has matured a lot as a footballer since we are here,” Xavi said. “We try to provide him with all the tools to make him see what he needs to do in any action — when he needs to demand the ball at his feet and when he needs to run into space. In that department, he is deadly.
“We only try to guide and help him to make the best out of his decision-making. That’s the key for him. Dembele still has the talent I saw in him on the first day. One of the most important things to succeed at Barcelona is to have enough self-belief to know you’ll make the difference, and he had it tonight.”
☕️ + 𝙃𝙄𝙂𝙃𝙇𝙄𝙂𝙃𝙏𝙎
Gooooood morning, culers! pic.twitter.com/M6F1Mt1xSA
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) January 26, 2023
Xavi’s opposite number Alguacil was similarly impressed. “Dembele is going through a sweet moment,” he said. “He’s capable of dribbling past three or four players in the space of five metres. I also believe we made things too easy for him, especially during the first half. But right now, he’s on a different level.”
At Christmas, Barcelona sources, who wished to remain anonymous to protect their position, voiced concerns over how Dembele would return to club football after a disastrous display in the World Cup final — where France boss Didier Deschamps replaced him (and fellow forward Olivier Giroud) after 41 minutes with Argentina already 2-0 up.
Instead, Dembele is thriving. The Copa del Rey, where his Barcelona career looked set to run its course last year, has turned out to be the stage where he completed his comeback.
Now the bigger challenge for Dembele is how he can keep producing such displays — and not revert to the frustrating performances that led senior figures at the club to question whether he could cope with Barcelona’s lofty standards.
Xavi and the Camp Nou were treated to Dembele turning over a new leaf — or omelette — on Thursday.
Now it’s up to the Frenchman to prove he can do it every week.
(Top photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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