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Dembélé Becomes Barcelona’s Latest Transfer Window Headache

With Ousmane Dembélé’s contract winding down and negotiations going nowhere, the club has issued an ultimatum to its talented but oft-injured star winger.

It wouldn’t be a complete transfer window without a Barcelona soap opera, so it seems.

The latest comes in the form of an ultimatum placed at the feet of Ousmane Dembélé, the supremely talented, oft-injured French winger whose contract negotiations (his current deal expires in June) are the latest source of consternation at Camp Nou. Wednesday, Xavi made it clear that Dembélé, after months of negotiations, has two options: either sign a new deal or be offloaded now.

“The situation is complex, it is difficult. The club has made a decision that if he doesn’t renew his contract we need to find a solution, one for him, one for us,” Xavi said at his press conference on Wednesday. “We can’t be in this situation. We have waited for a long time. The club's decision isn’t easy. We’ve been at this for five months now. We’ve been having conversations with the player and his agent, and we can’t wait anymore. Either he renews his contract or we look for a solution for the player.

“The message is clear. Ousmane Dembélé has to sign a new contract or we find a way to sell him in January. No other way. I also wonder why the agent is talking the way he is and Dembélé, on the other hand, telling me he wants to stay. I can’t understand.

“I don’t consider sending him to the stands," Xavi added, in response to an allegation made by Dembélé's agent regarding mistreatment. "He says he wants to stay but then he doesn’t sign.”

In some ways, it’s appropriate and symbolic that it has come to this. Dembélé and Philippe Coutinho were the first impulse buys following Barcelona’s record sale of Neymar to PSG—the moment the wheels started to fall off as the club gradually moved toward crisis. Coutinho never settled at Barça, won a Champions League title on loan with Bayern Munich—in part at Barcelona’s expense after he scored twice in the infamous 8–2 quarterfinal result—and is currently on loan at Aston Villa. The other half of that equation could now be on his way out too, and as Barcelona attempts to turn the page toward the future, with Xavi at the wheel and a newer crop of young talent coming through, perhaps it’s best if both parties just go their separate ways.

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Dembélé, a player who, just last month, Barcelona president Joan Laporta boldly (and outlandishly) claimed was better than Kylian Mbappé, has always been more of a top player in theory than one in practice, anyway. His skills and potential aren’t in question—he was part of France’s 2018 World Cup-winning side, after all—but his ability to stay healthy most certainly is. 

Various ailments, ranging in degrees of seriousness, have cost him scores of matches since joining Barcelona from Borussia Dortmund for a nine-figure fee in 2017. He’s never topped eight league goals or six assists in a single season over the last five years—his personal best in goals is 12, accomplished at Rennes when he was just 18 years old—and Barcelona isn’t going to come close to recouping its investment. Any glimpses of greatness have been offset by either an injury or a moment in which he has come up short (the end of the first leg of the 2019 Champions League semifinal vs. Liverpool, when he mishit a golden chance to put the Reds to the sword, keeping the door ajar for the comeback that followed, sticks out the most.) The best it can hope for now if he is not going to re-sign is to cut the albatross of his wages from the club’s books.

Barcelona’s problem is that with less than two weeks remaining in the transfer window, and with any potential suitors now clearly knowing where Barça stands, it’s going to be near impossible for its valuation of the player to be met. Barcelona has no leverage, and it may just be that removing his salary—and not having to commit to another big number for the future—is good enough of a transaction for a club still climbing out of gargantuan amounts of debt.

The January arrival of Ferran Torres helps mitigate the need for Dembélé to stay and perform. At this stage, Barcelona needs to be able to move forward at a rapid pace, with players who are bought in and available and represent pillars to build around for what the club hopes is brighter days. Due to all of the injuries, that hasn't really been the case for Dembélé at any point over the last five years. And it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case now at contract time.

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