For Ousmane Dembélé, Barcelona’s match against Atlético Madrid this weekend had to feel familiar. He started the game on the bench for the fourth La Liga match running, a reflection of the French wunderkind’s continued struggles to ingratiate himself with his teammates and manager thanks his now well-established lack of professionalism. He did eventually make it onto the pitch for the game’s final 10 minutes, though, and upon doing so immediately changed the tenor of the match. With his searing speed and his irrepressible creativity and his singularly unstoppable favorite dribbling move—the fake shot/cross—Dembélé wound up scoring the goal that won Barça a hard-fought point, a reflection that even with all his knuckleheadedness and apparent inability to put down the PS4 controller and show up to practice on time, he remains a player of outrageous talent and importance.
Dembélé has an array of subtle flicks and tricks in his dribbling arsenal that he can call upon to creep or blast by defenders. None, however, does he utilize as often and with such crushing effectiveness the fake shot/cross. It was that move that froze Atléti’s world-class left back Filipe Luís, who was too afraid of the accuracy of Dembélé’s telegraphed right-footed cross to charge the Frenchman down, and in doing so bought Dembélé the time and space needed to turn onto his left foot and slide the ball between keeper Jan Oblak’s legs and into the net. The whole move was subtle and ingenious, just as Dembélé always is when at his best:
Dembélé’s trademark fake-out differs from many elite dribblers’ hallmarks in that it truly is impossible to contend with. When Arjen Robben putters down the right wing and cuts inside, everyone in the world knows the move is coming, and yet time after time defenders let him do it. It’s Robben’s unpredictable timing and disguising of his inexorable inside cut that makes it so effective rather than any real risk that if a defender overplayed the inside lane, Robben would make them pay by going outside. With Dembélé, though, the “right” choice is far less clear.
When Dembélé runs with the ball into a dangerous area and pulls back either one of his terrifyingly adroit feet to shape for a shot or cross, there really is no safe or sensible course of action for a defender to take. Fail to bite on the shot or cross and Dembélé really might shoot or pass the ball, which he does with extreme accuracy with both feet. Bite on the shot/cross and Dembélé might have been just pretending to hit the ball and instead will cut the other way, using his absurd balance and agility to immediately change direction and fire off a real shot or cross in the open space. He doesn’t even have to oversell the move with a big feigned swing of the hand, and in fact his subtlety makes his trickeration even more impossible to spot. His technique, physical gifts, quick thinking, and almost total ambipedality make defenders damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Which is why he routinely makes defenders look like fools, like when he sat two Inter players on their asses earlier this month—
—and is why he’s the subject of highlight reels calling him the master of the fake shot:
This has been a strange season for Dembélé. He started the year on fire, scoring big goals regularly and appearing well on his way toward overcoming the undeniable problems his anarchic style of play causes a team like Barça that is centered so completely on orderliness. But just when it looked like he’d locked down a starting place for himself, manager Ernesto Valverde tweaked his starting lineup with great effect by shifting Dembélé to the bench role he’s been relegated to for the past month or so. That benching, plus the repeated stories about his immaturity and a steady stream of public criticism from his teammates of late, has seemed to drop Dembélé back to where he was before the start of the year—an impossibly gifted player who, for a slew of reasons, might not be the kind of player who can thrive at Barcelona. And yet even with those ups and downs, Dembélé has still come up big time and again, using his wizardry like that fake shot of his to maintain Barça’s status as arguably the favorites to win every competition they’re in.
On the field, Dembélé has everything he needs to become a legitimate, world-conquering superstar. If he does make good on that future stardom—either at Barcelona or somewhere else—it’s a good bet that his fake shot will become the iconic representation of his greatness, like Zidane’s roulette or Cristiano Ronaldo’s heel chop. Ultimately, when, where, and if he achieves the shining future available to him will be decided more by what he does off the pitch than the numerous, devastating things he already can do on it.