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How essential will Ansu Fati be in the Champions League?

What role should 17-year-old Ansu Fati have in August’s critical Champions League?

Prajas Naik

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Header Image by Imago

Ansu Fati has risen through the ranks at FC Barcelona at an incredible rate, but is he ready to start in the all-important Champions League?


Anssumane Fati is a young prodigy. The sky is the limit for this 17-year-old. Despite it being only his first season in the first team, Barcelona’s Ansu already has six goals and one assist to his name. He has scored crucial match-winning goals and is brimming with confidence. He even scored the match winner in the Champions League group stage match against Inter Milan at San Siro. But the question remains: should manager Quique Setién pick Ansu as one of the starters in the crucial fixtures in the knockout stage?

The player

Playing in the Champions League is very different from playing in La Liga. Unlike the league, it is a knockout tournament, and even the smallest of slip ups prove costly. Not just that, the Champions League contains the very best sides in all of Europe. It is one thing to score goals in the league and another to score in a fixture against sides like Bayern Munich or Napoli. With the remaining stages shortened to just one match, Quique Setién needs to be careful about his team selection.

Ansu Fati has shown on more than one occasion that he is no stranger to playing under pressure. Fati has been one of the only good performers in the team. He has stunned everyone who watches him play. He is even preferred over many of the more experienced players in the team. What he offers to the squad is just the thing the team has been missing for the last few years.

He gives Setién the choice of playing a proper winger in the team. The team has struggled to break down defenses through the middle and Setien has had to use the fullbacks to compensate for the lack of a true winger. With Ousmane Dembélé out until the final rounds, Ansu is the only natural winger in the squad.

The situation

Quique Setién has been experimenting with the team sheets in recent games. He has tried an unorthodox 3–5–2, a 4–3–1–2, a 4–4–2, a 4–3–3 and even a 4–2–2–2. But in most of the formations, he has chosen to play centrally with the full-backs providing support on the wings. It would be difficult to incorporate a winger in such formations. Yet without Ansu Fati, there is a real lack of pacey players who can take on defenders, especially while playing the 4–3–3.

A major problem of playing centrally is that the team seems worn out in the later stages of games. The substitution of Riqui Puig renders the midfield stagnant. Even after using various different formations, the team tends to lose its tempo as the game progresses. With Lionel Messi being the only creative player on the pitch, the team feels sluggish when he doesn’t perform. Yet Ansu offers that spark in attack that the team needs. He might be young and inexperienced, but he offers dynamism to the team.

Ansu Fati Barcelona Inter Milan UEFA Champions League

In a 1–2 win over Inter Milan at the Giuseppe Meazza, Ansu Fati became the youngest goalscorer in the UEFA Champions League history with his winner at the age of 17 years and 40 days | Photo by Isabella Bonotto / AFP via Getty Images

All of these factors suggest that Ansu is ready to start games. But in recent fixtures, Setién’s tactics have been working in the first half. The win against Villareal brought the best out of the squad and reminded fans of the days of old. With teams in the Champions League playing much more open than majority of the teams in La Liga, Quique could use the availability of Ansu Fati on the bench as an advantage as well.

As the game wears on, Ansu could be brought in against a well worn opponent to re-inject youth and pace into the team. The five-substitutions rule could be used to the team’s advantage. With the return of Frenkie de Jong, the blaugranas will have a healthier mix of veterans and youngsters. By employing the 4–3–1–2 or 3–5–2 in the first half, Barça could play through the middle and utilise the first half form that fans have seen in the last few games. Bringing on Ansu in the second half would change the dynamics of the game. The older players will also receive the rest they need.

Conclusion

Instead of bringing on ageing players in the dying minutes of the game, a pair of fresh legs capable of running behind the ball will certainly make it harder for opponents to break through the team’s defense. But it is essential that the substitutions are made at the correct time. As seen against Atlético de Madrid, Setién cannot afford to keep Ansu off for a long time. He needs to be playing at least 30 – 35 minutes to make him effective.

Quique Setién needs to have a clear game plan when choosing the team. Ansu would prove useful when playing against a narrow playing team, but having a centralised attack could come in handy against wider teams. It is the team’s requirements that will decide whether he will start or not. Nevertheless, whenever he is introduced, Ansu Fati is undoubtedly going to be vital if the azulgranas want to mount a challenge in the Champions League.


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Analysis

Opponent Analysis: Real Madrid; La Liga Matchday 7

Michael Gathige

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Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

The first El Clasico of the 2020/21 La Liga season is upon us and Real Madrid head into the clash just a point behind leaders Real Sociedad with a game in hand. Despite a hat trick of victories just before the international break, Los Blancos now find themselves on the brink of three defeats in seven days. Several reports have emerged that head coach Zinedine Zidane could be facing the sack if his side head home with anything less than a point from this encounter. But, what it is that has gone wrong for the defending champions this season, and how can Barcelona counter these to the best of their ability?

A Dysfunctional Attack

The capital outfit has shown an evident inability to make fair use of the high possession they have in games of late. They’ve been consistent with two formations: a 4-3-3 that morphs into a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 diamond as well. In and of themselves, these tactical setups aren’t by any means inadequate; however, the players deployed in these systems have been unable to make the best use of them thus far.

1. Wasteful strikers

With a striking duo of Luka Jovic and Karim Benzema, Real Madrid reasonably should be able to do more than score just over a goal a game as they have done this season. They’ve thus far scored 6 in five of their outings, with five of those coming against two teams, Real Betis – who were on a red card for around 30 minutes – and Levante away from home.

We are yet to see the best of Luka Jovic in the Spanish capital. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

Taking a look at their xG (expected goals) of 10.29 in all competitions, we see that they also reasonably should have scored four more goals than they actually have – in theory. This kind of underperformance can be attributed to the likes of Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema for their wastefulness in front of goal, both of them underperforming their xG by 0.71 and 1.47 respectively. Additionally, the former has also missed several opportunities to shoot, which cannot be attested to ‘expected goals’.

Specific examples of these are when Vinicius found himself in a one on one situation with the keeper against Real Valladolid and spent a chance worth 0.48xG and Luka Jovic somehow failed to put away one worth 0.66xG against Levante. To put this into context, Opta deems shots over 0.38xG as big chances and for them to have squandered two such significant opportunities and to do it so often that they find themselves four goals behind their expected goals, is worrying.

In their league winning season, Real Madrid scored 70 goals at an xG of 72.93. Of this, 52.83 came from chances they created in open play, while the rest was distributed across corners, direct free kicks, set-piece opportunities and the infamous penalties they scored all across the campaign. For a club the size of Real Madrid, racking up such a relatively low xG from open play should have been big enough a red flag to push Zidane and club President Florentino Perez into investing in some forwards to bolster their attack. The lack of expenditure in this past window meant that Zidane had to tweak his tactics to suit the players he has at his disposal, something we are yet to see consistently this season.

2. Poor Positioning from Forwards

While the forwards can be criticised for their inefficiency in attack from clear cut chances, their positioning to make use of said chances that come to them has been wanting. Karim Benzema isn’t your typical striker. He, in some ways like Messi, is a player that prefers to drop deep to create chances for his teammates and surge forward whenever the opportunity presented itself. Such can be seen in his stats last season: 21.25xG and 8.15xA (expected assists).

Someone needs to shoulder creative responsibilities from Benzema to bring the best out of him in the attack. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

For this to be a successful tactic, he needs players – like Jovic – to occupy the spaces he vacates in attack to be an ever-present threat for when a chance is created. Instead, his teammates find themselves lost amid their oppositions’ backlines and even if a through ball were to be played, there simply wouldn’t be anyone there to cease it.

This dreadful running off the ball leads to many of their attacks breaking down before they even begin. On several occasions, despite finding themselves in some auspicious positions, the attackers, be it from the wings or down centrally, simply don’t place themselves in places that would grant them good enough chances to score regularly. It stands to reason that scoring goals from high-quality opportunities requires players to be active in the penalty box.

3. A Pungent lack of creativity from the Wing

Football in the modern era is dominated by two kinds of fullbacks: inverted and offensive. Real Madrid via Marcelo have spearheaded the revolution of a traditionally defensive position of the pitch and transformed it into yet another offensive outlet to benefit from.

While the fullbacks and central midfielders can make a convincing case against their forwards for their inadequate positioning, they don’t help their cause either with their consistently inaccurate deliveries are.

Mendy and Barcelona need to improve their supply quality. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

As per Whoscored, Real Madrid has attempted a total of 93 crosses into the opposition penalty box in their six games this season. While this is a good aggregate number, only 17 of these have actually met their targets at a measly 18% success rate.

This inefficiency can undoubtedly be blamed on them, given the aforementioned problems when it comes to positioning. Still, the onus is on Dani Carvajal, Ferland Mendy, and Marcelo to do better than just 18%.

A Maladjusted Backline

Last season, in Europe’s top 5 leagues, Real Madrid had the second-best performing defence of teams that had completed their domestic campaigns. While the metric for ‘goals conceded’ places them right at the top, a better representation of their proper defensive rigidity can be evaluated by use of xGA (expected goals against). Despite conceding just six goals in all competitions so far, Real Madrid overperformed by 8.15 goals.

Clearly, such a level of overperformance isn’t by any means sustainable as somewhere down the line; a team is going to pick their pockets and make a mauling out of them. We saw bits of this against Shakhtar Donetsk in midweek and could easily see the same this evening. Thus far in La Liga, despite conceding just three goals, Los Blancos have an xGA of 5.02 and can attribute that majorly to the phenomenal saves made by Thibaut Courtois.

There is only so much that Thibaut Courtois can do alone. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

The positioning of their defenders is as inefficient and as inconsistent as that of their attack. In the build-up leading to Cadiz’s only goal of the game, we saw a pattern that we know all too well from Real Madrid and one that repeated itself on several occasions in that game. They failed to track their markers, left gaping holes in their defence and were punished accordingly.

They can, of course, rely on their Belgian shot-stopper to continue making insane saves – which is precisely why they bought him – but it merely isn’t an expendable tactic. Again, their lack of investment has come to bite them in the back. While the backline consists of dominant individuals, there is a clear communication gap between then, which often leads to poor marking and tracking.

How can Barcelona exploit these Weaknesses

The Catalans can easily counter Real Madrid by adjusting the line up in several ways to hurt their opponents. Firstly, Ronald Koeman could start by playing two pacey fullbacks in Sergino Dest and Jordi Alba; though the fitness level of the latter is still in question.

Why do this? As mentioned before, there’s an apparent problem when it comes to the positioning and movements of the Real Madrid attackers.

Dest’s blistering pace may help combat Madrid’s ability to counter quickly. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Following Luka Jovic’s performance in midweek, there’s a meagre chance of him making it into the starting XI for the El Clasico. Therefore there’s a high chance that Real will deploy a 433 with Vinicius and Rodrygo in the wider areas. To mitigate their impact, Barcelona will need to use two fullbacks that have enough pace to make ball recoveries if ever their visitors are successful in making overlapping runs into the byline. While not an airtight solution, it does substantially aid the Catalans’ case.

What about Benzema himself? Assuming Zidane will grant him the freedom to float around the box rather than stay within it, the best counter to this would be to partner Frenkie de Jong with Sergio Busquets rather than Miralem Pjanic. The Spaniard is far more defensively stable than the Bosnia,n and his interpretation of spaces is a notch higher. His defensive attitude will help him alleviate a large chunk of what the Frenchman has to offer

Moving on to their midfield, Cadiz did an excellent job at shutting their creative players down by use of one block of five in defence layered by a midfield block of four on some occasions.

The beauty of the 4-2-3-1 that Ronald Koeman is keen on using is that it can be switched to cater to several situations. By taking advantage of the fitness levels of most of our squad right now, Koeman could use a 4-5-1 when defending and instantly transition to a 4-3-3 or the 4-4-2 when the team advances.

Here there is one major thing that Barca could do to punish their visitors, and that is by using Francisco Trincao in the wider areas. The Portuguese did an excellent job at two things against Ferencvarosi: staying close to the touchline and taking on opposing defenders. He completed five take ons against the Hungarians, and most inspiringly, most of these were near the touchline.

Starting Trincão over Griezmann will be beneficial for the team tomorrow. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Against Marcelo, a player infamous for his defensive work, having his profile on one end can do wonders for the team. Adding Dembele late on, preferably in the final 30 minutes to take advantage of the waney legs of the Madrid defence, could prove to be a blessing for the hosts.

Should all these come in play, we can expect Barcelona to finish the El Clasico the way they started the new season against Villarreal – with a bang.

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