2017 22under22 Countdown – #1: Ousmane Dembélé

“This Dembele kid is unbelievable. I said during the game to Aubameyang: ‘Woah! What kid did you buy there?’ He’s freaking amazing, unbelievable. I don’t know how old he is – 18, 19? He’s so calm, very skillful, his speed is unbelievable. So congrats to Dortmund for getting that kind of player. I think they will have a lot of fun with him. He has a great future ahead.”
-Leon Balogun, Mainz defender

Date of Birth: May 15, 1997 (19 years old)
Nationality: French
Position: Winger/Attacking Midfielder
Club Appearances: 70 (21 goals)
International Appearances: 5
EiF Ability Rating: 74.5

*EiF Ability Rating is a representation of a combination of the player’s current ability and potential ability. It is determined by multiple rounds of voting, and then an addition of the scores given by each judge. The maximum score a player can have is 80.*

We conclude our yearly 22under22 Countdown, in which we list off the top 22 young talents in the world, with Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembélé. Dortmund are known for signing excellent young players and giving them a large responsibility within the first team, as is evidenced by the fact that three Dortmund players featured in this list, and Ousmane Dembélé is one of the greatest products of this philosophy in recent memory. Players such as Marco Reus, Mario Götze, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have all spent the formative parts of their careers at Signal Iduna Park and have all gone on to achieve great success, whether at Dortmund or elsewhere. Ousmane Dembélé is a name that will likely be included among these Dortmund success stories very soon. The 19-year-old Frenchman is simply a phenom, a player that single-handedly justifies the price of admissions for the fans. He is a joy to watch, and he is producing at a high level this year in his debut campaign in the German top flight. Dortmund have yet another gem on their hands.

Ousmane Dembélé was born in Vernon, France and plied his trade in Évreux from the age of 7 until he was snapped up by Rennes in 2014. Dembélé featured heavily for Rennes’ second team during the 2014/15 season, amassing 22 appearances and scoring 13 goals. His impressive scoring tally was enough to earn him a chance in the senior team, and he performed with equal success, netting 12 times in 26 appearances for the Ligue 1 side in the 2015/16 season. He quickly became known as one of the best dribblers in France, and his eye for goal was above average for such a young midfielder. On May 12, 2016, Borussia Dortmund announced that they had completed a €15 million for Dembélé. During the German club’s preseason tour, Dembélé was phenomenal, wowing crowds with his dribbling ability and speed. I was lucky enough to be in Shanghai to witness Dortmund trounce Manchester United 4-1, and to witness Ousmane Dembélé score an absolutely stunning solo goal. His season with Der BVB has progressed in equally impressive fashion. Dembélé has become a key member of the side over the course of the season and has tallied 9 goals and 18 assists. His scintillating form has also earned him five caps for the French national team, where he will have the opportunity to develop alongside an incredible core of youth talent that features the likes of Kylian Mbappé, Thomas Lemar, and Adrien Rabiot.


One of Dembélé’s greatest strengths is his ability to create separation between himself and defenders in order to make a pass or take a shot (Photo: Goal)

Ousmane Dembélé possesses a plethora of attacking strengths. He is incredibly quick, both with and without the ball, and he uses his pace to blow by almost any defender. His legs are extremely long and skinny, and this allows him to cover ground more quickly. One of his most noticeable strengths is his dribbling ability. Whether operating centrally or on the wing, Dembélé looks to take players on every time he has the ball. He will even go out of his way to create a 1v1 opportunity. When he receives the ball facing away from goal and with a defender tight on his back, Dembélé will often dribble backwards, cutting from side to side and utilizing body fakes to confuse the defender. Then, once he feels some separation between himself and the opposition defender, he will turn and run at the same player with the ball. This propensity to take defenders on is reflected in Dembélé’s statistics. He currently leads the Bundesliga in successful dribbles per match with 3.2, he is thirteenth in the Bundesliga with a 7.39 average match rating, and he is fouled 1.8 times per match (for reference, Lionel Messi is fouled 2.4 times per game this season on average). It is this joy of attacking, this desperation to be direct and positive with the ball that makes Ousmane Dembélé one of the most exciting individual players in the world.

Whereas most young players who like to dribble, especially those who play as wingers, often do not have very developed shooting abilities, Ousmane Dembélé is an adept finisher. It should be mentioned that he is ambidextrous, and this allows him to dribble, pass, and shoot equally well with both feet. Although Dembélé is technically left-footed, he takes corner kicks and penalty kicks with his right foot, because, as he casually says during a brilliant interview, “I shoot better with my right foot.” Ousmane combines his ambidexterity with incredible vision and tricky fake shots to fashion chances for both himself and his teammates. He creates many of his own goals by first faking a shot to sell a defender, and then releasing the shot after taking a touch away from the defender. Since he is able to do this equally well on both sides, he becomes nearly impossible to defend in and around the box. He scored one of his finest of such goals this past week to give Dortmund a 3-2 lead in their victory over rivals Bayern Munich in the DFB Pokal semifinal. He leaves David Alaba for dead with a fake shot, and then quickly releases the ball before Jerome Boateng and Arturo Vidal can converge to get a block in.

But Ousmane brings more to the Dortmund team as a creative player than a goal scoring threat himself, as his 18 assists suggest. Once he has the ball in the final third, Dembélé will almost always look to take a man on or play one of his teammates through on goal. He always is looking to get the ball as close to the goal as possible, and his through balls are absolutely deadly. He knows how to weight a pass and also how to disguise his intentions from the defenders. His creative playmaking ability is represented well by the fact that he averages 1.9 key passes per match. Dembélé is also comfortable making passes from anywhere in the attacking half of the field. This season for Dortmund, he has played as a left and right midfielder, a central midfielder, a central striker, and on the right wing. Indeed, it seems that he can be effective in any attacking position, and even when he plays as a winger he still pops up in central positions quite often as he tries to get himself on the ball. This fluidity works extremely well when he plays in a front three with Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, two other rapid players who are comfortable operating in the middle or on either side. Finally, Dembélé’s set piece delivery is excellent. He can take free kicks with either foot, which allows him to choose the best possible delivery technique for any angle and distance, and his crosses are accurate and consistent. In a Dortmund side packed with talent, it is telling that he is chosen to take a majority of their set pieces at the age of 19.


Dembélé’s impressive debut season at Rennes earned him the Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year accolade (Photo: The Sun)

Although he is a highly dangerous attacker, Ousmane Dembélé is not without his fair share of weaknesses. In fact, many of his strongest attributes are also potential sources of weakness in his game. For example, I’ve said that Dembélé is a direct dribbler who always looks to take defenders on, and while generally he does well in 1v1 situations, he still loses the ball quite a lot. From a statistical perspective, Dembélé completes 3.1 dribbles per match, but he also has 2.4 unsuccessful dribbles per match. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that Ousmane sometimes tries to dribble in his own half, and when he loses the ball in those areas it is a massive let down for his teammates.

Another area of his game in which Dembélé needs to improve is his passing. Not his final product, mind you, because his through balls, crosses, and final balls are all consistently excellent, but his passing while his team is in possession is sometimes lacking. Dembélé has only completed 67.4% of his passing this season, and while this number is actually not as bad as it looks considering that Dembélé has the license to try to play killer balls often, this is an area of his game that the young Frenchman will need to improve. It’s almost as if he gains a higher sense of focus and desire the closer he is to the goal. If he could knock out of some of the inconsistency in his passing and concentrate more on the easy balls, he would be a little bit less erratic in possession.

In fact, Dembélé’s performances in general could use slightly more consistency; he has the ability to single-handedly take over games, and he does so from time to time, but he also is sometimes invisible. If his first several dribbling attempts go wrong, he can sometimes spiral downwards and never recover during the context of the match. One example of this is in Dortmund’s two most recent matches against Bayern. In the Bundesliga clash between the two sides on April 8th, Ousmane played very poorly, receiving a 5.09 match rating in a 4-1 loss. However, in last Wednesday DFP Pokal semifinal against Bayern, Dembélé inspired his team to victory with a goal and an assist in a 3-2 come-from-behind victory. The final area in which Dembélé struggles is season-long stamina. Thomas Tuchel has rested Dembélé more and more as the season has gone on, even in big games, such as the Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Monaco. However, Tuchel subbed Dembélé on within 30 minutes of this match, and he often puts him in at halftime or early in the second half in Bundesliga matches. While his stamina has certainly been tested, the fact that Tuchel is so desperate to have him in the game that he uses a substitution in the first half or at halftime is a good sign.

Many French youngsters have rose to prominence over the past couple years. Kurt Zouma, Raphael Varane, and Presnel Kimpembe have all proven themselves at massive clubs, Thomas Lemar and Kylian Mbappe have been two of the main reasons Monaco are first in Ligue 1 and in the Champions League semifinals, and Adrien Rabiot and Corentin Tolisso have both been excellent this season. But out of all of these prospects, Ousmane Dembélé has perhaps shone the brightest. He has gone nowhere but up over the past two years, making both the jump from Rennes II to Rennes and Rennes to Dortmund with absolute ease and assuredness. He is an exciting young player, and is already becoming a fan favorite at the Signal Iduna Park. He has the potential to become a world beater, and if he can score more goals and knock out some of the inconsistencies in his game, I guarantee you will see his name on the Ballon D’Or shortlist sooner rather than later.

This concludes our 2017 22under22 Countdown. Thank you so much for following along, please let us know on twitter if you agree or disagree with our list. It’s been a pleasure to provide this content for you, and we can’t wait until next April, when we get to do it all again.