Punctuality issues have punctuated French forward's time at Barca recently, but he could still be late arrival to France's Uefa Nations League hopes
Uefa Nations League: Barcelona's Ousmane Dembele – the tyro with time-keeping issues
Winning the World Cup is the gift that keeps giving. A few weeks ago, each player from the French squad who triumphed in Russia each received a handsome replica of the trophy and a commemorative watch.
When the winger Osmane Dembele was handed his, the French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet added a light-hearted remark: “Don’t forget the watch!”
The joke was on Dembele’s reputation for poor punctuality, which is in danger of becoming as defining a characteristic as his speed on the ball, or his brilliant, breezy dribbling.
Several recent incidents of slovenly time-keeping have filtered out from Barcelona, his club, and, when he turned up – on time – to prepare with France for Friday’s Uefa Nations League match with the Netherlands in Rotterdam, found the issue of perceived indiscipline under close scrutiny.
“He needs to pay attention to the demands of playing at the highest level,” France manager Didier Deschamps said.
The attention certainly grows if you carry a €120 million (Dh498m) price-tag.
Fifteen months ago, as a 20 year old, Dembele became the most expensive footballer in Barca’s history when he was signed from Borussia Dortmund to replace the departed Neymar; five days ago, for the Camp Nou meeting with Real Betis, he arrived at the stadium three minutes before kick off, a breach of player guidelines.
He was not in the matchday squad – because had missed a practice session without apparently communicating to Barcelona’s management that he had a stomach problem.
So one breach followed quickly on another. When these sort of anecdotes reach the public domain, there is a reliable chemical reaction: instant transfer speculation. The idea of an interest from Liverpool – a logical fit, given their playing style and the player’s acceleration on the break – is the noisiest buzz. That interest would not be accompanied by offers as high as the fee Barcelona paid for Dembele.
Fact is, he is not commanding a regular starting place with his current club or his country.
Since Philippe Coutinho joined Barcelona in January, Dembele, who suffered a disruptive calf injury soon after arriving in Catalonia, has had fewer opportunities to pin down a first-team place alongside Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi.
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If Deschamps selects Dembele from the kick off against the Dutch, it would be his his first competitive start for France since the third group match of the World Cup, a fixture for which, with France already qualified, the leading light, Kylian Mbappe, was rested.
Dembele had started the opening game, but his importance to France’s rise through the tournament diminished. Of Le Bleus’ 360 minutes of knockout football, Dembele was on the field for just two. He remained on the bench through the semi-final against Belgium and the final against Croatia.
Deschamps has a gifted group of forwards, so the jostle for pre-eminence will always be vigorous. It may become more so in the next nine months.
Dembele’s difficulties at Barcelona coincide with the renaissance of Manchester United’s Anthony Martial, recalled last week by France after an eight-month gap, although he then withdrew with a light injury. Atletico Madrid’s Thomas Lemar is also out for fitness reasons, as is Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman.
None are more than two years older than Dembele, and are all looking to fill a similar role for France to the tyro with the time-keeping issues.
Dembele’s senior colleagues at Barcelona have acknowledged he needs to sharpen up his act. “He’s young, and we are here to help him learn that football is a full-time, 24-hour-a-day commitment,” defender Gerard Pique said.
They would also acknowledge his talent is to be cherished. Dembele has scored some spectacular goals in Spain, and his impact on the clasico against Real Madrid three weeks ago was emphatic, his drive and vision turning an edgy 2-1 advantage into a 5-1 thrashing in the mere 16 minutes he was on the field.
Dembele had arrived late to the party, but he was still lethal.