Saturday, July 29, 2017:
Neymar plays and assists twice in his last match for Barcelona in a pre-season El Clásico friendly win in the United States. He was subbed off in the 73rd minute.
The Brazilian officially signed for Paris Saint-Germain just a few days later.
Saturday, July 29, 2023:
Ousmane Dembélé features and scores for Barcelona in a pre-season El Clásico friendly win in the United States. He was subbed off in the 66th minute.
A few days later, PSG officially activated the Frenchman’s clause. At the time of writing, Dembélé has reportedly completed his medicals. He will be a new PSG player very soon.
Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. History has repeated itself in an incredible way, down to the exact calendar date.
It may all just be one big coincidence, but it’s still extraordinary regardless. Once upon a time, Dembélé was signed as the immediate replacement for the gaping hole left by Neymar when he made the switch for the Parisians 6 years ago.
Now, it’s Dembélé making the same move, in the exact same fashion. Neymar and his replacement may be playing together this season. Doesn’t that sound crazy?
Keep reading as we look back on Dembélé’s time at Barcelona, leading up to this sudden decision by the World Cup winner to follow in the Brazilian’s footsteps.
August 4, 2017; the day that would change the course of football history for good.
Barcelona superstar Neymar Jr. would smash the transfer record previously held by Paul Pogba after he made the switch to Paris Saint-Germain for a price of $263 million. 6 years later, and this is still the world record transfer fee.
Since then, no star-studded, promising player making the switch to a big team has been worth less than $60 million, but at the same time, no player has been worth as much as the Brazilian.
This has been reflected in the current Top 10 most expensive transfers of all time. The 9 players following behind Neymar in this all-time list all transferred after him. Besides Pogba, the previous most expensive player was Gareth Bale, who broke the record in 2013 when he left Spurs for Real Madrid. After that is none other than Cristiano Ronaldo.
Excluding Neymar and Pogba, this is the current Top 10 most expensive football transfers of all time:
Neymar’s transfer severely inflated the transfer market, perhaps causing players to be more expensive than they are probably worth.
In response to this monumental loss, Barcelona got straight to work. Just a couple weeks later, they signed Dembélé from Borussia Dortmund, which became the second most expensive transfer of all time.
Two record transfers, both in the same window, both involving the Catalan giants. It was no wonder the transfer market exploded the way it did.
Unfortunately, it didn’t go the way Barcelona wanted.
Dembélé’s first 4 years at Barcelona can be summed up by one phrase: a never-ending injury crisis.
Although he showed moments of brilliance when fit, he would never live up to the expectations set out for him. To be fair, it was a daring task to begin with knowing what Neymar did in his 4 years at the club.
Since 2017, the Camp Nou faithful have felt nothing but back-to-back frustration. Dembélé wasn’t a failed transfer for Barcelona. If we’re talking about performances, then the Frenchman is far from the conversation of a player that played terribly. When he was available, he did insanely well. Moments like the spectacular solo run against Tottenham in 2018 are the results of a Dembélé at the peak of his abilities.
But his recurring injuries, mainly thigh problems, prevented him from unleashing his monumental talent for months at a time.
It wasn’t until January of 2022 that the football world could finally start to justify his worth at Barcelona.
News of a possible exit from the club finally subsided when Dembélé decided to stay put. The fans were against him after the transfer window shut; they even whistled him as he prepared to come onto the field in a league match vs. Athletic Bilbao. He responded to the critics, scoring in the 73rd minute after only entering the field 6 minutes prior. He added two more assists to cap off a statement showing.
These types of performances would continue throughout the remainder of the season, as Dembélé experienced his longest run without injury since arriving at Barcelona. Although they would end the 21/22 season trophyless, Barcelona were visibly playing a lot better in their first season without Lionel Messi, and Dembélé played a big part of that.
The following season, he would continue to remain fit, only falling back into injury problems in January 2023. He’d miss 12 games, but with his aid, Barcelona would go on to win the Spanish Supercopa as well as retake the La Liga trophy.
And most recently, he would feature in Barcelona’s first couple preseason games, culminating in a 14th minute goal vs. Real Madrid in Texas.
Like Neymar, that would be the last time Dembélé played in a Barcelona shirt.
Like we already outlined, Dembélé has had a revival at Barcelona, and it’s a bummer to see it get cut short, just as Xavi has put together a talented squad with a lot of promise to it, as well as world class players like Gundogan thrown into the mix.
It was going to be a new era for the Blaugrana, but it seems as though that era will not include Dembélé.
On PSG’s side of the matter, they are receiving an in-form player reaching his prime years, and Luis Enrique will be looking to capitalize on this and fit him into the starting 11 as quickly as possible.
It’s going to shuffle things in the squad though, especially with the arrivals of the likes of Marco Asensio and the exclusion of Kylian Mbappe from the first team. Dembélé will be no exception to the ultras’ criticisms at Parc des Princes; after all, they’ve booed Neymar and Messi on multiple occasions.
It seems like Dembélé has outright ignored the struggles of Neymar at PSG since he arrived, with endless domestic success overshadowed by embarrassing UCL exits and even more injuries than the Brazilian ever experienced as a Barcelona player. It’s a shame that the Frenchman is leaving a club that was finally starting to enjoy the fruits of his abilities in trophy form.
The deal hurts more than just that, though. From a general football standpoint, it’s an unfortunate repeat of a high-caliber player leaving Barcelona for the French capital on something of a sour note.
It’s nowhere near as dramatic of a situation; like we mentioned, Dembélé never reached the levels of magic that Neymar displayed at Camp Nou. In the grand scheme of things, it shows that no amount of cash truly defines a player’s career at a big club. Money does not equate to success; the transfers of Pogba, Coutinho, Griezmann and countless others have shown us that in the past.
If this teaches any lesson to European heavyweights, it’s that they must be careful to not replicate these sorts of situations. As fans of the beautiful game, we hope this means that clubs will learn to spend less for high-quality players, as unlikely as this is.
Money is playing more and more of an crucial role in the market, as displayed by all the talent leaving Europe for Saudi Arabian clubs.
All things considered, it’s looking like PSG is very close to seeing the balance that it’s been looking for since they began their project years ago.
It’s still unclear whether Mbappe will leave now or next summer, but the connection that he may end up forming with Dembélé is already proven on the international level, so that’s something to look forward to if you’re a PSG fan.
And if they don’t even get the chance to play with each other this season - which is much more likely considering Mbappe is intent on sitting out for an entire year - reinforcements in Goncalo Ramos and Hugo Ekitiké have arrived. Yes, neither of them are outright superstars, but it would be the beginning of a new era where no player is single handedly taking all the spotlight for 90% of the season.
The other odd man out of this new project may end up being Neymar after all, and after the failure of MNM, it looks like he’s lost all the remaining hope he had of seeing great success with the Parisians. Whether the rumors are true or not of the Brazilian seeking a return to Barcelona, it’s clear that his desire and excitement to play in France is nowhere near the same as it once was when he broke the transfer fee record in 2017.
At his age, a fresh start is all he can ask for right now.
Meanwhile, Dembélé may have it a little better. Although he had been back to his best for Barcelona, he’ll now have to rediscover his abilities in a new squad, albeit back in his home country. He’s going back to the league where he first gained national recognition, and thanks to his efforts with Rennes 8 years ago, he was later able to introduce himself to the world with Dortmund.
As a result, we think it’ll be a matter of time before the French winger is making the headlines again for the right reasons. As much as it’s a huge disappointment for Xavi and Co., this may end up being a good deal in the long run for both clubs.