Ansu Fati: Is Barcelona’s glimmer of hope slowly fading away?
The 25th of August, 2019, marked a special occasion for Barcelona. With key attackers in Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Ousmane Dembele all ruled out for the game against Real Betis, the Blaugrana were in dire need of reinforcement.
And, as is so often the case, the club resorted to the academy in order to secure that.
Eventually, with Ernesto Valverde’s men comfortably leading, the 78th minute saw the emergence of Ansu Fati, a flamboyant 16-year-old winger who was yet even to make an appearance with the subsidiary, making him the club’s youngest debutant in almost 80 years.
Fast forward a week, and, with the team still knee-deep in injury crisis and trailing Osasuna at el Sadar, the youngster was once again called upon at the start of the second half.
Just six minutes later, his world would be flipped on its head; his name – etched into the history books. With a precise and composed header into the far corner, Ansummane Fati had become the youngest goalscorer in FC Barcelona’s history.
In his very next game, it took him just seven minutes to score and then provide an assist. Now at the Camp Nou, with the adoring home crowd chanting his name.
A young star had well and truly arrived.
What followed was a further six goals over the course of a season in which Fati proved one of the sole bright sparks for the Catalans. After all, the club’s supporters could finally look ahead with hope, expectations and, above all, optimism.
The breakthrough, the setback(s), the road to recovery
With the club still in tatters following the humiliating 8-2 defeat against Bayern Munich not that long ago, it was always going to be hard to bounce back.
Indeed, even with Ronald Koeman now at the helm, the first couple of months of the 20/21 season proved troublesome. However, if there was a player that was not at all to blame for it, it was Ansu.
Right off the bat, he hit his stride, attaining levels even the more optimistic fans would not have expected him to. His dribbling was sharp as a blade, his strike was lethal, his running power was immense, his decision-making was mature beyond belief.
And most importantly, he was a player brimming with confidence.
Nine games into the season, Fati had already found the net on five occasions and provided an assist on a further four. Bear in mind, he was still 17 at the time.
For a player his age, such output was unthinkable. Paranormal, even. And, as it so often happens, the football gods made sure balance was restored. Balance comes at a cost, though.
On the 7th of November, a nasty tangle with Real Betis’ Aissa Mandi saw Fati go down in agony. An extensive medical examination the following day reaffirmed the worst suspicions: he had suffered a meniscus tear.
For the youngster, this was a hammer blow. Just when he had found his groove, this injury threatened to completely stall his progress.
A few days later, Fati underwent surgery. From there onwards, he had to take his time. For the very first time in his senior career, the young prodigy had to wait. Any rash return could result in a relapse, and he knew it better than anyone.
The expectation from within the club was that he would be back by early February to early March at worst. Yet, as time ticked down, his return kept being delayed, whilst frustration only increased. His recovery had not just stagnated; in fact, the process in its entirety had collapsed.
Thus, Ansu Fati would undergo a second surgery. And then another one. At this point, the remainder of the 20/21 campaign was firmly out of the picture. Instead, he would shift focus to a comeback within the first couple of games of the following season.
September the 26th, 2021. Matchday seven of the La Liga season. With Barcelona leading Levante 2-0, the 81st minute marked an occasion so long overdue: Ansu Fati was back on the pitch, almost a year on from his last appearance.
Now, he had the stage to himself. As the game entered stoppage time, he picked the ball up near the halfway line, drove at the defenders, and with a deft feint, he had the space to pull the trigger.
For a brief moment, deathly silence prevailed. It was almost as if the whole crowd let out a collective gasp of disbelief.
It was all too good to be true. Definitely a fairytale.
And yet, none of it was fake.
A fraction later, the Camp Nou erupted into a deafening roar. As his teammates lifted him into the air, he had the world at his feet. Ansu Fati was back.
To say this was a miracle would be some understatement. With the continuous setbacks he encountered en route to his return, you would be forgiven for doubting him. Yet, here he was, back on the pitch, still in excellent shape, both physically and mentally.
Lightning never strikes twice. Or does it..?
The next couple of games saw Fati cautiously phased back into fitness, with his cameos progressively growing in length and the player himself regaining his confidence.
Crucially, for all the adversity he had faced, he had not lost any of his youthful jubilance and ‘immaturity’, in the most positive sense imaginable.
He feared no consequences, rushing into 50/50 challenges and taking opponents on with the exact same confidence and arrogance as he did before.
It was almost as if none of the events of the past year had actually happened. As if he had simply stepped aside for a while, only to come back stronger than ever.
However, trying times would not end there for the youngster. In reality, this was only the start of Ansu Fati’s ordeal.
The away clash against Celta seemingly did not spell any misfortune at the start. Five minutes in, Fati had opened the scoring with the deadly finish that fans and rivals alike had grown accustomed to.
By the 34th minute, Barça were 3-0 up. The 19-year-old was in dazzling form, and the rest of the team followed suit.
39th minute of the match. As he stretches to reach Frenkie de Jong’s cutback, Ansu drops to the ground, clutching his left hamstring in pain.
The initial horror was replaced with relief, as the youngster soon got back on his feet, still in discomfort, but thankfully in a position to continue.
Nevertheless, in the dying embers of the first half, following yet another sprint, he was back on the ground. Again. This time, his day was done. In fact, so were the next two months. As he left the pitch in tears, a dissonance of sorrow and disbelief reigned in the stadium.
As if his patience had not been tested enough, Fati was once again back to square one. Thankfully, unlike the previous year, his recovery was untroubled, meaning the teenager returned just in time for the Supercopa semi-final clash against arch-rival Real Madrid.
In the 66th minute, with the scoreline at 1-1, Ansu Fati replaced Luuk de Jong. Minutes later, Karim Benzema put Real Madrid ahead.
Now, he had to deliver. There was a trophy at stake. Barcelona had to throw caution to the wind. Could the context of his comeback have been any more adverse? Not really. Yet, if there is one thing he had proven over the past year, it is that he deals with adversity better than anyone.
In the 83rd minute, Jordi Alba’s cross found Fati at the heart of the penalty area. Of course, he made no mistake.
The miracle man had done it again.
Unbelievably, for the second time in a row, he marked his return with a goal. This time, it was one of enormous importance. His extraordinary resilience was rightfully rewarded.
Of course, he lacked sharpness throughout the rest of the game, but that was only natural. Extra time certainly did not help his cause, but the youngster persevered.
The game might have ended in defeat, but it gave fans plenty of positives to dwell on. For Fati, his debut under Xavi’s helm could not have gone any better. From now onwards, all he needed was a steady reintroduction and, for once, a little bit of fortune.
But once more, fortune would evade the youngster.
A week after his return, the Catalans would face another test, this time in the Copa del Rey against Athletic Club. Fati was brought on at the hour mark, hoping to influence a game in which his team had struggled to create opportunities.
In a dramatic finale full of twists, Barcelona would once again go to extra time. Six minutes into the first period, disaster struck.
He knew it. Better than anyone. Just two games in, he had suffered a relapse.
The script was all too familiar for the youngster. Any time he overcame a hurdle, another one would instantly surface. For all his heroic efforts, luck was not on his side.
Inconsolable, Ansu walked down the tunnel in tears. This time, the sentiment of sorrow was overthrown by that of numb acceptance. The blow came as a shock, for sure. Yet somehow, it was totally predictable. The fact that misfortune preceded him everywhere no longer came as a surprise.
Is this how it was supposed to end?
It seemed like it.
Once a promising youngster, Ansu Fati had become another one of football’s countless tormented souls seeking to find peace with their fate – to no avail.
But for him, giving up was not an option. No matter how many attempts it took, he had to keep faith. Therefore, having elected to undergo conservative treatment, Fati worked hard to return. Almost four months later, he was ready to go again.
Ansu Fati made his return on matchday 34, against Mallorca. For him, it was a familiar scenario. However, unlike the previous two occasions, this time, there were no fireworks. Though his next game saw him on the scoresheet anew, the pattern of the remaining games painted a grim picture. On the pitch, he was truly unrecognisable.
Still, such a slow start was understandable given the circumstances, hence there was no option other than to hope that he would be back to his best come the 22/23 season. Ultimately, the off-season gave him plenty of time to recuperate, which meant he was expected to deliver almost instantly come matchday one.
Yet August rolled around, and it seemed as though nothing had changed.
September and October breezed by, and Fati’s case had not improved in the slightest. So much so, that when he was announced in Spain’s World Cup squad, the decision stunned almost everyone.
At least this unexpected call-up represented the perfect occasion for the youngster to redeem himself. Just one moment of brilliance in Qatar could serve as the watershed in his season and his career as a whole. Nonetheless, Fati failed to capitalise on any of the opportunities granted to him by Luis Enrique.
With almost half the season gone by, he remains a shadow of his former self. His dribbling is no longer as perilous, his shooting not as fearsome, and his burst of pace no longer staggering. And above all, his persona on the pitch is nowhere near as imposing as it used to be.
It feels surreal to claim that he, the kid that petrified the world’s finest defences, dazed players twice his age with his sublime technique and unmatched courage and stunned his coaches with his maturity, is simply no longer up to the task.
It feels horribly unfair to claim that he, having had to pick himself up from the lowest of lows on three separate occasions, may not be rewarded for his perseverance.
Cruel though that can be, perhaps at some point, one has to take off our rose-tinted glasses and face the truth head-on. And the reality is as such: at just 20 years of age, Ansu Fati might already be past his best.
Oscillating between hope and realism
Still, let’s not be too dramatic. Fans of the sport often let our emotions supplant all reason, thus making us come to rash conclusions. In that regard, this situation is no different. Truth be told, Ansu Fati’s case is not as hopeless as it may seem at first glance.
First and foremost, to state the obvious: Fati’s consecutive setbacks have hugely limited him on a physical level.
Hamstring injuries are notorious for striking down athletes’ running power and especially their initial launch, and this deficit is unlikely to ever be fully compensated, barring an extraordinary physical evolution on the player’s part.
Undeniably, his physical traits have played a significant role in making Fati the player he is today. Before his injuries, his launch was monstrous, allowing him to defeat any opponent in a dash of as little as five meters, as shown below.
However, even if he never recovers said launch speed, he could still excel in similar situations. Faster reflexes or a more refined first touch (preferably both) could have an identical effect. As always, cognitive capabilities are those that set a top-class player apart from the rest.
Thankfully, Ansu Fati has always been as savvy as he has been physically gifted, and has already made commendable headway in certain nuances of his game since his debut – most notably his peripheral vision and sense of pausa.
Therefore, there is nothing to suggest he will not improve in several other facets too.
A concern of similar magnitude, perhaps, is his excessive cautiousness since his comeback. And, frankly, can anyone blame him?
His last two major injuries have been the aftermath of pushing beyond his physical limits, so it is only natural that he is now erring on the side of caution.
Nevertheless, if he is to come back to his best, he inevitably has to recover his recklessness of the past. Of course, that entails an element of risk, but his prevalence in duels has ultimately always represented a vital aspect of his game.
If there is a lesson to be learnt from his struggles, playing a tier beyond his limits is undoubtedly not one of them.
The more pressing issue, however, is his loss of confidence.
Unfortunately, that is simultaneously the hardest trait to regain; primarily because it is determined by such a vast number of factors, ranging from continued patterns like the manager’s faith in him to isolated moments, such as a vital goal contribution.
At the end of the day, confidence only partly depends on factors within the club and Fati’s control.
A stroke of blind luck could completely reverse his fortunes, and the beauty of football lies in the fact that you never know when, where or whether that moment will arrive.
Hence, as long as that glimmer of hope still flickers ever so faintly, we have to keep faith.