Ousmane Dembélé: The new Cristiano?
Will this young hotshot from Stade Rennais be the Cristiano Ronaldo of the 2020s? Does this comparison even do justice to his abilities? Spielverlagerung’s scouting report seeks answers.
Ousmane Dembélé, the 18-year-old attacking player from Stade Rennais, is on everybody’s lips at the moment. Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Manchester City, among others, have been interested in signing him, although Dembélé hasn’t even played a full season at the professional senior level. It may sound crazy at first, but when you look at it more closely, it becomes fully understandable why top-tier clubs all over Europe are willing to open their cheque books in order to get him under contract.
Born in the Haute-Normandie region in northern France, Dembélé started his career at AM Madeleine Evreux. Already at a young age, his technical skills caught everybody’s eye, which he even underlined by playing on the futsal field, besides competing in the regular football youth leagues.
Bigger clubs like Rennes, SM Caen and Le Havre AC started showing great interest in convincing the Vernon-native to join their youth sections when he was 13 years old. He eventually decided to move to Rennes in 2010. After being promoted to the reserve team in 2014, he immediately made an impact by consistently scoring goals in the Championnat de France Amateur 2, the fifth division.
Dembélé’s talent earned him a spot in Rennes’ first team in the following season, making his first appearance on November 6, 2015, when he played four minutes against SCO Angers. From December onwards, he has been an integral part of their starting eleven. His performances also led to his debut for France’s under-21 national team in March, and, as mentioned, to wide interest from many renowned clubs.
Obviously, Dembélé’s technique is what stands out the most. He can properly control the ball, often switching between touching the ball with his toes and sliding it with the inside of his foot. He can also quickly switch to leading the ball with the outside of his foot within one dribbling sequence. Only sometimes he hits the ball too hard and loses control.
Overall, the variety of his dribbling techniques gives him the opportunity of adapting his moves in one-on-ones to the environment and the actions of his opponent. Dembélé possesses two strong feet, which makes it possible for him to change the lead foot, while the opposing players can’t figure out with which foot he will ultimately play a pass or hit a shot.
Coming from the right wing, he clearly prefers a diagonal route towards the danger zone over vertical runs down the wing, so he can attempt curl shots, aiming at the left corner of the goal. Starting on the left wing, he either charges from the outside towards the goal, or he makes a rather hard cut to move with the ball horizontally while intending to throw the opposing defenders off balance by feinting shot attempts or continuing the horizontal run until he finds an opening to finish the play. Alternatively, he only makes a short inside-cut to open up the outside lane for an overlapping team-mate who then receives a short pass across the offside line.
Ousmane Dembélé – Attacking Skills on Vimeo.
Outside of these pre-designed and trained patterns, Dembélé struggles to adapt his passing game to rather improvised attacking plays. In the last third of the pitch, the timing and pace of his passes into the penalty area or his through balls in behind the opposing back line are inconsistent and often unsuitable for the situation. Not being able to read the movement of other players correctly finds expression in attempted passes that don’t connect with the feet of his team-mates, but rather go a tad behind the targeted players.
Physique and body coordination
Dembélé’s ability to dribble past most of the defenders he faces partly relies on his characteristic running style. His body levers differ from many other quick and agile dribblers, with him having seemingly long legs.
Usually, his upper body leans over slightly, while he pushes his upper legs forward and upward. It could look stiffly, yet the 18-year-old’s body centre is above the ball, which stabilises his posture when making dribbles at a controlled pace.
In addition, small intermediate steps before touching the ball again help him to not only control the ball, but also to quickly react to the moves of his opponents. However, Dembélé tends to stand too close to the ball. In contrast, at a higher pace, he gets into better positions, where he can turn his hip and drive his body into the shot creating the required spin and force.
On a downside, he sometimes returns to a more upright position at a high pace, which makes him vulnerable to losing his balance. It happens only on a few occasions, but his body control isn’t perfect yet, as is visible when he drags the ball with the inside of his foot and in a way his body moves past the ball. He then is forced to regain balance. That’s why his upper body movement could look wild in these situations.
However, that doesn’t mean Dembélé isn’t able to use body movement to his advantage. Especially in static one-on-ones, when he faces a defender standing right in front him, he can feint passes by putting one foot forward and not finishing the motion of playing a pass. In these moments, it helps that he is a two-footed player.
Ousmane Dembélé – Two-Footed on Vimeo.
Dembélé’s positional awareness and especially his understanding of tactical processes are nowhere near the level of his technical abilities. Given his age, this, of course, can change in the future. But as of now, he is more comfortable in beating opponents in one-on-ones than operating in open spaces, where he often acts hastily.
He sees the first and obvious passing option in front of him and decides to send the ball there, without reconsidering his decision or looking for other options. For instance, when occasionally playing a position in the half-space, he becomes very limited in terms of his passing patterns.
Normally, the 18-year-old just passes the ball to the outside, which leads to a degree of predictability that diminishes his playmaking competency.
Consequently, opponents should rather wait a moment before they challenge him instead of immediately marking him closely. When Dembélé feels the defender right behind him, he knows how to turn his body, utilise his explosiveness and protect the ball in order to beat his marker and advance on the pitch.
It appears that he struggles to understand how a compact and well-positioned defence can be outplayed, when he doesn’t have the opportunity to just dribble into the pockets. Therefore, Dembélé is better at overwhelming opponents in counter-attacks in which he can dribble and pass into open spaces, while slight inaccuracy not always causes turnovers.
As for his defensive competencies, his outings for Stade Rennais haven’t given much indication of how good he can work in a sound pressing system – for example how good he can mix aggressive runs with zone blocking. Due to his explosiveness, he is able to dispossess opponents in rather isolated duels, but his timing and his positional play in regard to his opponent in order to make a successful tackle is improvable.
He thrives in fast-paced environments and struggles in tactically complicated settings. Just like Cristiano Ronaldo, the young French offensive player impresses with his dribbling capabilities thanks to his technique and athleticism, yet he needs to learn more about group tactical processes and how to adapt to the flow of his team’s movement to become a more helpful team-mate.
Dembélé can become a real weapon for every club, if he develops a better understanding of spacing and improves his ability to manipulate the tactical structure of the opposition. At this point, he loves to dribble and make flashy actions, and there is nothing wrong with preferring these things at the age of 18.