As you may or may not have seen on our Twitter feed (@full90footie, don’t you know), Full 90 Football – or more specifically, yours truly – has been on a mini football tour of Spain to see out the season in style.
So far I’ve attended two games at Atlético Madrid’s Estadio Metropolitano (including the Europa League semi-final against Arsenal), and Barcelona’s Wednesday night home game against Villarreal. I’ve got two more games to go: Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on Saturday, and Sevilla at home on the 20th.
Anyway, it’s the Barça match that I want to talk about today. I’ve had a couple of days to process the experience; here are my two biggest takeaways.
Ousmane Dembélé Is Going to Be A Star
Of course, any recap of a Barcelona game worth its salt should start with Messi. I’ve never really known what that phrase means, and I’m not about to look it up now, so let’s talk about Dembélé instead.
The rumours of Dembélé’s departure – possibly on loan, possibly on a permanent basis – have been growing in recent weeks. The idea that they would simply sell him now is absolute clickbait transfer gossip rubbish of the highest order. They spent (at least) €115 million on him, all of nine months ago. I would put the chances of them just giving up on someone they clearly regarded as a future star as somewhere between 0-1%.
Admittedly, young Ousmane’s first season hasn’t been the stuff that dreams are made of. He suffered a crushing injury in his first league start, which kept him out for four months, and he’s struggled to get back into the first team since. If he keeps putting in performances like the one on Wednesday night, however, he’ll be hard to leave out; even with Barcelona’s arsenal of talent up front.
He was absolutely electric to watch. In sheer entertainment terms, he’s comfortably top of my rankings on my mini-tour of Spain thus far. He’s got pace to burn. He doesn’t look as fast as someone like Messi, because he takes such lengthy strides with his long legs, but the rate at which he gobbles up the ground is quite astounding.
He’s brilliantly direct – fitting into the equally direct approach which Messi and Suarez favour perfectly – without being selfish. He looks to drive with the ball almost immediately every time he receives it – this, combined with his lightning-quick feet, making him a relentless, nightmarish presence to mark – but he’s quite happy to link up with the right-back (Semedo, in this case, who’s no slouch himself), and whichever other attacker has drifted over to help out.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out his second goal; the fifth of the game. It was admittedly (quite literally) the final kick of the game, against a Villarreal side who’d largely given up. That said, it still amply encapsulates Dembélé’s formidable physical qualities. The power and pace he displays, as he simply runs straight through the entire middle of the opposition’s team, is impressive to say the least; particularly when you consider he’s still only 20 years old. The physicality in his game was a particular surprise, given his lithe, rangy frame.
Is he still raw? You bet. He’s not “selfish”, but his decision-making needs a lot of work. In particular, whilst his relentless directness is brilliant to watch, there are times when it would behoove him to simply lay the ball off to a teammate in space, and run on. He gets dispossessed far too easily as well; obviously an enormous no-no at Barcelona.
With that said, Dembélé is a special, special talent. If he can harness his potential – which I’m extremely confident he will – and display a consistency which will surely come with age and increased game time, then there is no doubt in my mind that he will be a superstar. In a few years’ time, and particularly with the way the market is going, we could well look back on that €115 million as very good business indeed by Barça.
Oh, Yes – And Messi Played
I’d read about this online before, from people who’d seen him live, but it was still quite stunning to see just how little Messi moves when his team is out of possession. It’s something you can’t quite appreciate on TV, because when his team is in the camera shot he’ll often either be on the ball or looking to get on it. When he’s not in shot… well, that guy’s not tearing up a lot of turf! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody walk quite so slowly across a football pitch. Picture your nan walking her Yorkshire Terrier across the local common; that kind of speed.
This isn’t meant as a criticism, by any means. It’s a peculiarly English obsession we have by giving so much credence to a player for the simple act of running around a lot (Owen Hargreaves made a top level career out of it). In his incredible autobiography, Zlatan Ibrahimović talks about how – when he was still a prospect at Ajax – he used to run around a lot. Marco Van Basten pulled him aside at training one day and said, in short, “Stop it.”
A striker, whose team relies upon him so heavily to score goals, should save as much energy as possible for those explosive, short-lived moments in which he gets the chance to do so. Messi has mastered this art. He’ll sometimes jog after a defender a little if he thinks there’s a chance to catch him out. But, when the ball moves a certain distance away, it’s as if his brain automatically switches to Energy Conservation Mode and simply shuts his legs down. Cue a lot more trudging around.
Again, this isn’t a criticism. In fact, it makes the times when Messi does get the ball all the more remarkable.
However sloth-like, I spent a lot of time simply watching Messi, even when the ball was at the other end of the pitch; because, well… it’s Messi. When the ball does finally come to him, it’s genuinely jarring to see him go from (almost literally) 0 to 100 miles per hour in a split second. Suddenly, having barely moved in three minutes, he’s sprinting full-pace at a defender, who will invariably be backing off in panic. He’s taking those little touches, he’s blowing past people or placing pinpoint, incisive passes forward to his teammates. Before you know what’s happened, the diminutive, detached presence has transformed into the scurrying, lethal footballing genius you came to see. Again, it’s as if a switch has been flicked –this time from Off to On – with “On” meaning “Become An Unstoppable Genius”.
Whilst Dembélé may have put in the most exciting performance in this match, nothing compares to the thrill of watching Messi on the ball. The entire stadium moves forward a little in its seat. Everybody tenses. If he’s going on one of his trademark runs, the noise – which has already switched to a general, excited chatter the moment the ball touched his left foot – grows louder with each passing second. Every single time he touches the ball, everybody in the ground expects to see something magical, something impossible, something… Messi. And, best of all with this beautiful player, is that he delivers; time, after time, after time. When you pay to see Messi play, you always get your money’s worth.
He scored in this game, as he always does. The goal didn’t really make sense in the moment, and it still doesn’t really. To watch Messi live is to muddle your own brain. On the run that led to the goal in particular, it looked as if he should lose the ball – I don’t know – three, four, five times? He took touches that appeared to be too heavy, and the defenders thought so too, committing to the ball appropriately… only for Messi to somehow reach it first, nick it away the slightest split-second before they did, and continue on his way. I think at least one defender did actually get the ball at one point… the next moment, Messi had it again. The ball for him is like the One Ring for Sauron; it wants to be at his foot, and – if removed – seems to exercise a power of its own to return.
I won’t say that I can die a happy man now that I’ve seen Lionel Messi score a goal live. Will I…? No, that might be stretching it. But it’s certainly a moment I’ll remember; if not for the logistics of the goal (for it seemed to happen too quickly in the moment, and I don’t particularly want to go back and watch a replay), then for the emotion, the happiness, to have seen the great man at his peak, doing what he does better than anyone else has ever done it.