It was uncanny just how similar Ansu Fati’s introduction as a Barcelona superstar of the future was to that of Lionel Messi’s.
The latter’s debut first goal, is the stuff of football folklore, finding the back of the net just three minutes after coming off the bench in a way over Albacete, becoming the Catalan club’s youngster ever scorer. The former evoked that moment by netting five minutes into his debut against Osasuna, usurping Messi’s record at the age of just 16 years and 318 days old.
To compare Ansu to Messi, probably the greatest football player of all time, might seem hyperbolic, but underlines just how great expectations are for the most complete product to have come off the La Masia conveyer belt for a generation. Barcelona are on the brink of an almighty transition with Messi entering the twilight of his career and a presidential election looming next year and in Ansu many at the Camp Nou see the future.
The teenager is now being asked to carry the future, though. With Ousmane Dembele expected to miss the rest of the season and Luis Suarez also out for at least another two months Ansu has gone from being Barca’s next big thing to a key first team figure whether he was truly ready for that or not.
Indeed, Ansu had started each of Barcelona’s last four La Liga matches before the weekend win over Real Betis. In fact, the 17-year-old had played almost every minute (341 of 360 minutes) of his last five games under new manager Quique Setien before being substituted 33 minutes from the end of the Copa del Rey defeat to Athletic Club. This has been through necessity.
Barcelona’s current dearth of options in the attacking third and reliance on a teenager who only made his senior debut a few months ago is a damning indictment of the club’s transfer policy over the past few years. The best part of £700 million has been splurged on new players since 2017 with the likes of Paco Alcacer, Philippe Coutinho, Gerard Deulofeu, Andre Gomes, Malcom and Arda Turan all chewed up and spat out by the Catalans.
Until recently, it seemed summer signing Antoine Griezmann was set to join such undesirable company. The French striker has since found a vein of good form, but it’s still not entirely sure what his role is at Barcelona, particularly with Ernesto Valverde gone and Setien hired as his ideological antithesis. That change has prompted a number of questions, not least in attack
The injury suffered by Suarez in particular has forced Setien into a tactical reshuffle. Ansu is a very different forward to the Uruguayan, much more suited to the wide areas. The teenager is only averaging 1.6 shots per game this season, compared to Suarez’s average of 3.1 shots per game, and so it was never likely that he would be a straight deputy for the injured striker.
Sunday’s away win over Real Betis presented the most fascinating tactical case study of Setien’s still fledgling Barcelona reign to date, with Frenkie de Jong and Arturo Vidal asked to make late runs and even play as a ‘False Nine’ at times. Before that Ansu had been used on the left side of a front three with Griezmann out right and Messi taking on the role of a more orthodox centre forward.
It’s in Ansu’s movement that there is much for Setien to utilise. The teenager is only averaging 0.8 key passes per game (for context, Sergio Busquets averages 0.9 per game) and 1.2 dribbles per game (de Jong is averaging more with 1.8). This is where the Neymar comparison is strongest. The Brazilian’s greatest strength was in the way he created space for others, not necessarily in his productivity, hugging the touchline to stretch the pitch before driving inside. During his time at Barcelona, Neymar was the master of the pre-assist, the first component of a supply line that also included Messi and Suarez. Ansu has been used in a similar way by Setien, pulling away defenders from central areas much like Pedro used to.
Barcelona never succeeded in replacing Neymar, with the impact of the Brazilian’s sale to Paris Saint-Germain two-and-a-half years ago still felt to this day. The Catalans have been lopsided ever since having attempted to shoe-horn a number of ill-fitting players into a left-sided attacking role. Billed as the natural heir to Messi, Ansu must hope in the immediate term that he isn’t just the latest in a long line of failed Neymar replacements.