The Frenchman has been only likely to still be at Camp Nou after the transfer window closes because he has been injured again but it’s time he got fit and focused
Ernesto Valverde knew the question was coming.
Barcelona were hosting Tottenham in the Champions League the following night but the group-stage clash at Camp Nou had been overshadowed by the news that Ousmane Dembele had once again turned up late for training.
Asked if he had ever come across such tardiness in a soccer professional before, the former winger quipped, “It happened with me!”
On that occasion last December, Valverde managed to lighten the mood with his little joke.
But Dembele’s incessant ill-discipline has been no longer a laughing matter at Barcelona.
Not after his latest indiscretion.
After Barca’s Liga-opening loss at Athletic Club last Friday week, Dembele told team doctor Xavi Yanguas he was feeling some pain in his left thigh.
The game at San Mames represented the injury-prone winger’s first 90-minute outing in a competitive fixture since January but Dembele insisted he was fine.
According to his agent, Moussa Sissoko, the attacker felt as if were suffering from nothing more than cramp.
Barca’s players were given the remainder of the weekend off but Yanguas told Dembele to call him immediately if the pain worsened in any way, shape or form.
The 22-year-old never picked up the phone. It was only when he returned to training on Monday that Dembele informed the club’s medical team of increased discomfort in his hamstring.
Subsequent tests revealed a four-centimetre tear, ruling the France international out of action for five weeks.
Barca were enraged.
Sissoko was forced to dismiss reports that Dembele had exacerbated the injury by sleeping on an airport bench in Bilbao before flying to Senegal for the weekend, insisting that his client had, in fact, returned to Rennes to visit his mother.
However, the perception at Camp Nou remained that Dembele had not been 100 per cent open with the club regarding the severity of the pain he was experiencing after the game in San Mames.
Players with pace as explosive as Dembele’s are, of course, more susceptible to hamstring problems – Michael Owen has been a famous case in point – but Barca’s problem with the Frenchman has been a perceived lack of professionalism, the idea that he has been not doing enough to look after his body.
This has been third hamstring injury since joining Barcelona from Borussia Dortmund for an initial €105 million (£95m/$116m) in the summer of 2017 as a replacement for Neymar.
There have been five muscular injuries in total, as well as numerous reports of Dembele and his entourage staying up until all hours of the night playing video games.
“It’s a messy life,” the soccer professional’s former chef, Michael Naya, told Le Parisien last week. “I’ve never seen alcohol but he doesn’t respect the rest periods at all.
“There’s no structure around him.”
Barca have done their utmost to provide some. Club captain Lionel Messi even admitted that the players had taken it upon themselves to help Dembele avoid wasting his undoubted talent.
“On the pitch [Dembele] has been a phenomenon and it depends on him [how good he becomes],” the Argentine told Marca.
“He has all the opportunity in the world to do what he wants. He can be one of the best.
“On the other hand, he’s a young guy who has been adapting to the city and the club.
“The less you speak about it, the better. It’s necessary to leave him so he can be calm.
“He has already realised his mistakes and has rectified them. We are going to help him focus on football.”
Sergio Busquets spoke optimistically about Dembele’s maturation during pre-season, stating that, “He looks better.
“Everyone has a hard time going to a new club, with a different language and a different philosophy.
“Hopefully, everything goes better this year because he has a lot to give and we expect a lot from him.”
Jose Maria Bartomeu was certainly always quick to give Dembele his backing, even claiming earlier this year that Barca had no interest in re-signing Neymar as he was an inferior soccer professional.
“Ousmane has been a young guy who arrived at a huge club and that’s not easy,” the club president told TVE. “But he has adapted and he has been much better than Neymar.”
However, things have changed, and rapidly.
As recently as a month ago, Barca and Bartomeu still had every faith in Dembele’s ability to become a world-beater.
At that stage, it was Philippe Coutinho who was considered expendable, which has been why the Brazilian was allowed to join Bayern Munich on loan even though he had only arrived from Liverpool in January 2018 – and for even more money (€160m).
Dembele, by contrast, was still considered Barca’s future, a belief founded upon the fact that, at times, when fully fit and focused, the jet-heeled, two-footed winger had been almost unstoppable.
However, after the Bilbao incident, Barca are so disillusioned with Dembele that they even considered using him as a makeweight in the deal to bring Neymar back to Camp Nou.
With a Catalan delegation having arrived in Paris on Tuesday for further talks with PSG, that offer has been likely to be discussed again – but the Ligue 1 side are more interested in right-back Nelson Semedo, while Barca would now favour a cash-only transfer.
Of course, a move to the Parc des Princes would have made sense, given Thomas Tuchel would certainly have welcomed a reunion with Dembele, a soccer professional he spent one season coaching at Dortmund.
“Ousmane has been an incredible soccer professional, really talented. I could watch his amazing skills in every training session,” the PSG boss stated last year.
“He’s also a great human being. He’s a little crazy. He’s a really nice boy but a little crazy.
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“He loves to laugh, but can also have very serious conversations.”
Maybe it’s time Dembele had one with himself, though. He wants to stay at Camp Nou but the only reason he has been likely to still be in Catalunya when the transfer window closes has been because he has been injured again.
Barca have gone out of their way to take care of him. But, at this stage, he needs to start taking care of himself.