Ansu Fati – Barca’s rising star
There is perhaps no player whose reputation has grown in 2019/20 to the same extent as that of Ansu Fati, the Guinean teenager has become a household name in a very quick time.
His family moved from Guinea-Bissau to Spain when he was at the age of six and has been enrolled with the youth sections of FC Sevilla His career with Barcelona began in 2012 when he joined La Masia at the age of 10. He made an instant impression at La Masia and went on to score 56 goals in 29 games in his debut season. He continued to play through the levels for Barcelona youth team till making it at the first team.
The talented young forward has gathered a lot of popularity amongst Barca fans in just few games during the 2018/19 season, he got some play time under coach Ernesto Valverde at that time due to injuries which struck the big names in the offensive line including Messi, Suarez, and Dembele. He has managed to shock the fan-base of the Catalan giants with his unique style of play and skills at such a young age.
Fati came close to breaking a 78 years record in Barcelona. At age 16 years and 298 days -the Bissau born winger who recently became a Spanish citizen- was the second-youngest player ever to make a La Liga appearance for the Blaugrana, falling just 19 days short of breaking the record. A record held by Vicenç Martínez, who was 16 and 280 days when he started for the Catalans back in 1941.
He scored his first professional goal in a 2-2 away draw, between Barcelona and Osasuna, becoming Barcelona’s youngest goalscorer ever and the third youngest scorer in the history of La Liga.
The 16-year-old made his Champions League debut against Borussia Dortmund in a 0-0 away draw, becoming the youngest player to feature for Barcelona in the competition at the age of 16 years and 321 days, breaking the previous record held by Bojan Krkic. He also became the third youngest player ever to appear in the competition.
Technical and Tactical Analysis:
Since that incredible start at the age of 16, minutes have been tougher to come by. Forcing the likes of Luís Suárez, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé when they are fit to play out of the lineup was always a difficult task. With injuries to Suárez and Dembélé, the minutes have returned this season as the teenager has lined up on the left and right-wings for Barcelona.
Though the data points to an average dribbler, the eye test reveals much more. When he’s successful, Fati’s quickness and manipulation of the ball standout as potentially elite qualities. He’s very much a right-footed player, making it clear to see that his dribbling ability and Barcelona’s tactics make him a perfect match on the left-wing, at least from a technical perspective. From a physical standpoint, his pace is relatively average for the position, meaning he’s not the kind of player who will excel in the right-wing, turning the corner and delivering from wide. Quickness and body control are the top physical attributes, allowing him to deceive opponents in tight spaces and complete his next action without engaging in a race with his defender.
There are many variations to unleash Fati’s various skillset when he’s playing wide,while he can send a cross or simple pass into the box with his left foot, his tendency to cut inside and combine with short passes or look for the shot, much like Arjen Robben during his years at Bayern Munich. Within Barcelona’s tactical system, this is the preferred attacking approach from the left-forward.
Dribbling and combination play in tight spaces are the standout technical qualities. He’s an active player, always looking to break into the half-space and get his side to goal. While he’s played on both wings this season, starting from the left as an inverted winger is his preferred approach. Since Barcelona rarely send crosses, Fati, the academy graduate, has the skill set that fits the current tactics.
Playing for Barcelona certainly helps inflate his touches in the box, and his progressive runs are strongly indicative of his ability to read play and move off of his teammates. With a player like Messi in the lineup, there’s often a gap for the wide forwards to run into, especially with Suárez out of the lineup. As Messi moves centrally between the lines, you’ll often see a centre-back step forward to mark him. As the defender steps forward, a gap emerges, which is exactly what Fati patiently awaits as his teammates combine in the midfield.
As can be seen in the above example, in a home fixture against Levante, Fati recognized the opportunity to make his move, cutting inside as usual. His cut inside and Messi’s run into the central channel leave them in the perfect position to showcase their combination play. With three defenders in his immediate vicinity and a fourth covering the cluster, Fati passes to Messi, who now has just one defender between him and the goal. Though Messi chooses to shoot, playing Fati’s run behind the defence was the better option. Credit goes to the Spanish youth international for utilising his dribbling ability to set up a central combination.
The second way is to serve Fati with through-balls in behind. When hugging the touchline, Fati puts himself out of the opponents’ eyesight. In the example shown above from the match at Valencia, Messi has dropped into the midfield, dragging a single centre-back with him into the midfield. With the emergence of open space in the right half-space, Fati makes a run into the space. Much like this sequence, he frequently plays off his defender’s shoulder, getting him by the opponent before they have a chance to pick up his run. the run was excellent, displaying the 17-year-old’s intelligence and willingness to run.
In the example above, Fati was playing on the right-wing. He’s typically an inverted left-winger, cutting inside to his preferred right foot. The radar below by Statsbomb gives an idea of the stark difference in production between his appearances on the wings.
When Fati plays on his favoured left-wing, he’s a far more active dribbler, cutting inside and producing moments of chaos for the defence. He’s also far more likely to take shots and hit the target.
While he’s much more likely to win his dribbles and offensive duels on the right-wing, he attempts far fewer. Since he’s very reliant upon his right foot, the natural actions on the right-wing are progression with the dribble on the wing and a cross. Neither of these actions fit well within Barcelona’s attacking tactics. With the exception of Suárez, none of the forwards offer much of a threat from crosses. Barcelona’s philosophy and the talent on the squad necessitate that they cut inside to create shooting opportunities from the central channel and half-spaces, which is certainly ingrained in Fati, La Masia product.
From a playmaking perspective, Fati often lacks dynamism on the right side of the pitch. Unwilling to show the defender the ball, he generally refrains from the dribble, trying to find his way inside with clever off the ball movements. Additionally, when Barcelona attack the goal, the youngster often lacks confidence and makes poor technical decisions coming in from the right. No one can deny Fati’s dynamism, but it’s clear he’s much more influential as a left forward than as the right-sided attacker. Striping him of the inside cut from the left places a handicap on his production.
Fati is an incredibly exciting player, one that the Barcelona fanbase will surely want to remain with the side. The player has shown that he has the potential to take on a much larger role with the club, especially as Messi ages, Suárez leaves and the fates of Dembélé and Griezmann are settled.
Comparing his 2019 stats with the current calendar year, there is both evidence of growth, as well as signals that Setién is using him differently than Valverde. In part, we are seeing Fati move to the right-wing more frequently. As discussed in the previous section, that accounts for the decline in his dribbles, duels, shots and progressive runs.
If Barcelona do hang on to him, finding ways to insert him in the starting XI, preferably on the left-wing, he has elite potential. Moving on from Messi to Fati would ease the Catalan side’s transition and ensure the philosophy of Johan Cruyff continues to flourish in Barcelona.