In 2016/17, Ousmane Dembélé confirmed his status as one of the best teenage players this decade has seen. Signed by Borussia Dortmund for a steal at €15m, Dembélé regularly lit up the upper echelons of the Bundesliga with his breathtaking creativity and sparkled in the Champions League as a leading light in a young Dortmund team who made the quarter-finals. Only the remarkable performances of Kyllian Mbappé in the 2nd half of the season mean Dembélé isn’t widely considered the best young talent in world football at the moment, but the brilliance of the Monaco youngster shouldn’t detract from the performances of a player who is already close to being the complete attacker.
Dembélé started the season as one of three exciting young wide players for Dortmund-along with Emre Mor and Christian Pulisic-but as the season went on, established himself as the standout talent for the Black and Yellows. Eventually moving further inside in a predominantly back three set up, Dembélé was able to make better use of his positional intelligence and creative passing to devastating effect, and his partnership with Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang formed one of the best front threes in Europe.
When playing near the touchline in the early months of the season, Ousmane was able to showcase his ability to beat defenders on either side, aided in no small part to being completely two footed, but struggled to consistently influence games, and often found himself losing the ball after failed dribbles and poor passes. While almost unstoppable once in his stride, the long legged Dembélé isn’t as strong from a standing start, which was often a problem when receiving the ball on the wing.
Later in the autumn, Thomas Tuchel more regularly turned to a back three formation with wingbacks. As a result, Dembélé was free to roam in the half spaces and drift centrally. In this new system, he could use his sometimes unheralded positioning qualities to find space in between the lines, where he was able to receive on the turn and drive at the defence. With the ability to beat players on either side already obvious, he was able to cause even more damage in central zones. Here, Ousmane could exploit his ability to play through balls, both on the ground and over the defence. No one had more through ball assists in the Bundesliga and only Emil Forsberg (13) had more open play assists than Dembélé’s 12.
Of course, Dembélé also offered goal threat. He scored seven goals in the Bundesliga and Champions League group stage, as well as a goal against Monaco in the Champions League quarters, a cup semi final winner in Munich, and the opener in the DFB Pokal finale in Berlin as he won the first, of what surely will be many, trophy of his professional career. Both the cup goals came through his trademark fake shot on one foot and shot on the other, one of the most iconic individual player moves this season.
The performances of the French international have further enhanced his standing on the world stage, and brought about more links to Barcelona. Furthermore, the departure of Thomas Tuchel, who Dembélé enjoyed working under, has added fuel to the fire that he may look to leave the Westfalenstadion. Despite that, it seems most likely Dembélé will stay with the Black and Yellows for at least another season and it will be fascinating to see where his development goes from here. The main thing for the Frenchman to try and improve is his passing percentage, which was one of the worst in Europe among non-strikers last season, without reducing the threat his aggressive passes cause. His tendency to give the ball away with sloppy passes or too regularly look for the killer pass when it wasn’t on, left the Die Schwarzgelben faithful frustrated many times last season, and meant he was detrimental to the side if he was having an off day. Still, more often than not, he more than made up for giving the ball away with a killer through ball or low cross into the six yard box for a tap in goal. Secondly, he must add greater goal threat to his game, which will be needed at Dortmund with Reus injured and Aubameyang potentially leaving. With his ability to shoot well with either foot not in question, the key will be getting himself into the positions to exploit it. While his movement in between the lines last season was exceptional, he rarely made runs in behind the defence or found poaching opportunities in the box. If he added these skills to his game, he could easily hit double figures for league goals next season and take another step towards the Ballon D’Or podium.
After scoring his first international goal against England last month, Dembélé will have his eye on being a starter for France in Russia. If his trajectory of the last two seasons continues in 2017/18, he surely will be.
By: Oscar Wood/@Reunewal