The notion of a PlayStation footballer got distorted when Gary Neville described David Luiz as ‘being controlled by a 10-year-old on a PlayStation’.
Anyone who’s played FIFA or Pro Evolution Soccer knows that PlayStation footballers are far from the twitchy Cruyff turns in the box that came to define Luiz at his worst.
PlayStation football is perfect, linear dribbling. PlayStation football is controlling a 60-yard-pass on the sprint without breaking stride. PlayStation football is hitting the target every time you shoot.
In many senses, Barcelona are the closest representation of PlayStation football in real life.
Lionel Messi consistently pushes the boundaries of football with such ease that it looks simulated.
Sergio Busquets’s metronomic passing may as well be a teenager sitting in their front room tapping X repeatedly.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen has yet do drop or parry a shot during his time as Barcelona’s no.1.
Luis Suarez’s finishing isn’t so much calculated as pre-programmed.
Then there’s Ousmane Dembele.
While Dembele’s Barcelona team-mates harmonise from the same hymn sheet, the Frenchman sings in Klingon.
That’s not to say he’s selfish. Only Messi has played more key passes this season, while Dembele provides more crosses per game than any of his Barcelona colleagues.
But Dembele is the embodiment of playground football. Nothing is off limits, no plan too well set to be changed, no skill too outrageous to attempt. The freedom of the playground runs through his veins.
Take his goal against Spurs.
Dembele hunts down Kyle Walker-Peters and dispossesses him with the ease of a Year 10 up against a Year 9 at lunchtime. Next he goes back for seconds, selecting the knock-and-run from his endless supply of tricks and feints.
Then, at the moment in which 99.99% of professional footballers would shoot, Dembele chops with gallant serenity. Harry Winks now also understands what it feels like to be the overpowered Year 9.
The finish isn’t perfectly placed in the corner, but that adds to the magic.
Dembele’s unorthodox playing style makes perfect sense. This is a 21-year-old with just three years of first-team football under his belt.
He grew up playing in the concrete blocks of La Madeleine, Evreux, where the 5-a-side cages would be crammed with youngsters from the area.
Holding on to the ball amongst the chaos required something out of the ordinary. The cages meant new angles could be manipulated.
The marriage between the playground footballer and the PlayStation team is far from perfect.
Rumours of repeated late shows at training, ironically said to be down to his love for the computer game Fortnite, have reportedly caused a strained relationship with Ernesto Valverde.
Dembele was fined £90,000 after turning up two hours late for training following the 4-0 win against Espanyol, in which he’d scored.
But Messi has come out in support of his team-mate, saying Barcelona ‘need Dembele’ amidst rumours of interest from Arsenal. Case closed. Barcelona wouldn’t dare sell an ally of Messi.
Heading into December, Barcelona would have been tenth rather than second were it not for the goals of Dembele.
In terms of pure unpredictability and will to try something out of the ordinary, only Neymar can challenge Dembele in the battle to be football’s king ringmaster.
Whether Dembele’s long-term future lies with a club whose DNA is born out of simplicity remains to be seen.
Wherever Dembele ends up, you won’t want to take your eyes off him.
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