Ousmane Dembele may have reached the last two World Cup finals with France (and won one of them), scored the winner against Atletico Madrid at the weekend, been moved around Europe for over €160m in transfer fees across his career and have his coach at Barcelona coach telling anyone who’ll listen how remarkable his talent is … but there’s already so much the erratic winger could learn from his rival in Thursday’s Spanish Supercopa semifinal.
Luiz Henrique Andre Rosa da Silva hasn’t won anything, just turned 22, moved to Real Betis for a modest €8m initial transfer fee, didn’t get picked to be part of Brazil‘s World Cup squad in Qatar and can’t yet speak Spanish very well, but his remarkable skill set is complemented by a voracious appetite to learn, develop and to eradicate mistakes from his game. It’s arguably the very attitude Dembele seems to lack.
Whether the two wingers go face-to-face for the first time this week, when Barcelona and Betis compete to face either Real Madrid or Valencia in the Supercopa final, is up to their respective coaches: Xavi and Manuel Pellegrini. Barca and Betis face a heavy load of LaLiga matches — they are first and fourth respectively in the table — plus Copa Del Rey knockout ties next midweek (Barcelona go to third-division Ceuta, while holders Betis are at home to Osasuna), and they both have ambitions to win the Europa League. (The Catalans play Manchester United in February in the round of 32, while Betis qualified directly to the round of 16.)
There will be times when elusive, match-winning talents like Luiz Henrique and Dembele will be rested in order to be at their most explosive when the crunch matches come along, but this is a semifinal (played in Saudi Arabia) with the whiff of a trophy in the air — the grand final is on Sunday — and seven-figure sums on offer based on reaching that final or, indeed, lifting the trophy.
Watch Spanish Super Cup live games, highlights on E+ (US Only)
Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET: Real Madrid vs. Valencia
Thursday, 2 p.m. ET: Real Betis vs. Barcelona
Sunday, 2 p.m. ET: Supercopa final
In all likelihood, Betis will field Luiz Henrique and ask him to try to torment Jordi Alba, while Xavi will almost certainly deploy Dembele on his preferred wing, the right, to attack either Alex Moreno or Copa-winning goal scorer Juan Miranda. But whether these two immensely talented, lightning-fast wingers, each of whom scored the winning goal for their respective teams on Sunday, start the semifinal or not won’t make a jot of difference to the basic point here.
Luiz Henrique’s absurdly fast adaptation not only to LaLiga, but to the demands placed on him by Real Betis and his coach, Manuel Pellegrini, should serve as a morality tale for Dembele. The Barca man is capable of genuinely outrageous moments on the pitch, but the fact that his direct opponent never knows what Dembele is going to do is matched by the very clear evidence that neither, it seems, does Dembele himself.
Some cynics might argue that most of the time, everyone knows precisely what Dembele is going to do: over-run a dribble, gift the ball to an opponent instead of a well-placed teammate or fail to control the easiest pass sent right to his feet. Then, when you doubt him most, the 25-year-old will tie a defender in knots, burst into a remarkable sprint, and erupt a shot into the top corner.
Xavi believes in him evangelically, as does France coach Didier Deschamps, who started Dembele in every World Cup match except for the Tunisia defeat. Those clubs who could have secured his services when he was available as a free transfer last summer evidently didn’t believe as strongly as those two coaches do.
Dembele has made some progress: he’s picking up fewer injuries, has a dependable grasp of Spanish and is racking up more goal assists. But the percentage of times when he does the right thing effectively, whether that be a simple or complicated task, isn’t on the rise, and that’s where the negative comparison with Betis’ thrilling summer purchase comes in.
There are direct similarities that are immediately evident. Luiz Henrique has the same, perhaps even greater, pace on the ball once he sets off on a run. He’s got an equally powerful strike, although off his right foot rather than both feet like Dembele, and that was shown by the sublime winner he smashed in against Rayo at Vallecas during Betis’ 2-1 win a couple of days ago.
Each man has that most prized of attributes: the technical ability to dribble, mesmerisingly, past a rival while in a flat-out sprint. Luiz Henrique boasts quick feet and good close control; he’s also daring. When he arrived at Betis last summer, 21 years old at the time, he looked at times as if he was lost. It’s understandable, too: the Brazilian was changing continents having left Fluminense, he lacked experience and he was trying to come to terms with a hugely different pace of football in a new league.
Hampered by his new club’s inability to meet financial fair play demands until the third match day of LaLiga, which delayed his registration with the league and stalled his debut, he struggled. His touch was erratic and his decision-making was, frankly, Dembele-esque. Play raged around him and he looked markedly out of his depth.
Here’s where Pellegrini comes in.
As the Betis coach explained it: “Initially, Luiz was prone to getting his ideas mixed up, not following the team’s basic playing concepts. But when we watched him train we saw he was really skilled technically, that he could get to grips with tactics and we had total faith that there was a big future for him. Let’s hope he keeps developing as he has done because we are all certain there’s a lot more to come from him.”
Pellegrini asked Luiz Henrique to be much more involved defensively and to work harder off the ball. He also ordered the young Brazilian to stay true to his nature, to continue to take risks when in possession. He also recommended homework.
Luiz Henrique’s home debut was after an hour against Osasuna, and he received a standing ovation when he came on. Minutes later, Betis were down to 10 men and Luiz Henrique worked his socks off to ensure that Los Verdiblancos held on to win 1-0.
Next time out, against Madrid, he looked out of his depth: raw, error-prone and almost bewildered. Since then, he has made been exemplary progress. He looks more confident, more diligent and more reliable every week, making the most of an unimpeachable work ethic. Yes, there are mistakes and signs of his inexperience, but he’s always learning.
In beating Rayo at the weekend, he successfully doubled up with full-back Aitor Ruibal to help cut the flow of possession to Rayo’s winger Alvaro Garcia, but also ran at the home defence and scored the winner.
“I think my style of playing is just right for Betis,” Luiz Henrique said. “I love to have the ball, to play attacking football, to dribble past opponents and to give assists or score. But I work hard, too. I’m ambitious, I want to achieve great things here, which is why I think what the club wants and what I can do could be the perfect mix.”
The purpose of all this isn’t to be mean or derogatory about Dembele. He’s intermittently thrilling, he’s got one of the all-time greats of Spanish football (Xavi) fervently in his camp, he was LaLiga’s leading assist-maker in the past calendar year and generally, he’s beginning to get the message about consistency, application and development. The difference is that the Brazilian new kid on the block understands that message innately.
Luiz Henrique’s performances in the past two matches come against the awful backdrop that his father died back home in Brazil in the first week of January, just as he himself was turning 22. Like just about everyone around Betis, Pellegrini was floored by the kid’s determination to stay and play well for the club. If you saw his winner against Rayo and that celebration, down on his knees with both arms extended upward and fingers pointing to the heavens, you now know why.
Just getting back to that request from Pellegrini that his new player study Vinicius … it’s pretty thrilling for fans of Spanish football that these two — and Dembele, admittedly — are in the ascendancy at the same time with three of LaLiga’s top clubs.
Vinicius is ahead of his compatriot. A trophy winner, scorer of the winning goal in the Champions League final, fundamental in a sensational partnership with Karim Benzema and playing at Madrid rather than Betis. But even his initial development — plus his key ability to hear, assimilate and understand the advice being given to him by luminaries like Zinedine Zidane, Benzema, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and current coach Carlo Ancelotti, was less quick — had less momentum than that of Luiz Henrique.
Don’t be fooled. This Betis winger is terrifically talented and exciting, but he’s still young: he occasionally sets off on the wrong dribble, gets knocked off the ball or skews a shot into the crowd rather than into the top corner. It’s just that he’s on a very rapid path to the moment when opponents genuinely fear him, Betis fans adore and venerate him in song, Brazil pick him as a regular and his goals/assists output shoots up in quantity. He’s a hugely enjoyable footballer to watch while he grows.
Give yourself a treat and get on the Luiz Henrique beat.