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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tactical Analysis of Barcelona’s season opener against Villareal
FC Barcelona kicked off their 2020-21 La Liga campaign at home against Villareal in style. They won by a margin of 4-0, marking a very auspicious and positive start to the Ronald Koeman era.
The shape of the team
The starting eleven was, somewhat expectedly, the same set of players that started against Elche in the Joan Gamper Trophy. Neto started in goal in the absence of Marc Andre Ter Stegen. Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto started in defence, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong started in a double pivot, Ansu Fati and Antoine Griezmann started as nominal wingers, Philippe Coutinho started as the nominal 10, and Lionel Messi as the nominal 9. Here is Barcelona’s pass map until the first substitution (minute 70):
As can be seen, Griezmann frequently dropped deep and moved in – and he can be forgiven for that, for he is not a natural right-winger; he is an SS. Messi dropped less deep as compared to the Elche game, but he still had the freedom to roam.
The left side of the team was highly effective. Jordi Alba was a constant menace down the flank and combined wonderfully with Fati. Frenkie and Coutinho lent their support down the left whenever possible. In stark contrast, the right side was not effective at all. Griezmann had the least passes and touches among the outfielders and didn’t combine effectively with Roberto at all. Going ahead, this might be a headache to solve.
Barcelona were devastatingly good in offence in the first half. They scored 4 unanswered goals, had an overall of 17 shots in the game, 9 of which were on target. Here is a small data table compiling some stats at a glance for the game:
Here is a comparison of the shot map and the xG flow of the game; as shown, Villareal never really got a sniff at Barca’s goal and couldn’t assert themselves at any stage of the game.
All of this could’ve been possibly very different, had Paco Alcacer decided to take a first time shot instead of chesting the ball down in the path of his Villareal teammate early in the game. That didn’t result in a shot, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Barcelona’s goals came in all varieties. The first goal was a wonderful long ball over the top from Clement Lenglet to Jordi Alba, who pulled it back for Ansu Fati to smash in a great shot.
This was very much reminiscent of how Messi set up Alba for the goal against Elche.
The second goal came from a quick break. Lenglet released Coutinho from deep in Barcelona’s defensive third. Coutinho carried the ball upfield quickly, catching Villareal out with a fast break. A simple layoff and Fati took care of the rest with a brilliant near-post finish past Sergio Asenjo.
The third goal came from a penalty, won again by Fati with a burst of speed into the box, and getting fouled. There was a nice bit of buildup to that:
And finally, there was also the return of the own goal – a pass from Messi to the onrushing Busquets – yes, you read that correct – in Villareal’s penalty box led to Pau Torres poking the ball into his own net past Asenjo.
While the tempo dropped a lot in the second half, there were still plenty of shots taken by Barcelona that required Asenjo to pull off some wonderful saves to keep the scoreline down to 4-0. Most notable was the save from Francisco Trincao’s shot late in the second half. On the other end, Neto came up with a calm display to keep Takefusa Kubo’s shot away.
As mentioned earlier, the bulk of the productive buildup happened from the left side. Lenglet made a wonderful pre-assist and was assured in his passing in general. Alba was a threat throughout, with his brilliant off-the-ball runs and cutbacks to Fati, Messi, and Coutinho. Fati was a threat with his direct running and taking on defenders. Coutinho and Frenkie provided good support too. Here is a look at all progressive passes by all the starting outfield players:
Next we take a look at a wide variety of progressive/attacking passes by both teams (only completed passes are shown):
The half spaces and the left wing were very well utilized, and there were quite a few passes into the box from zone 14 as well.
Villareal didn’t breach the box as frequently as Barcelona did, thanks to some abysmal crossing by Pervis Estupinan. It was only after Kubo came on that they could get into the box with some regularity from the left. But by then, it was 4-0 late into the second half, and Barcelona had taken the foot of the gear completely.
Something that’s easily noticed in the plots above, and is a definite bit of concern, is Griezmann’s struggles with linkup play. He could not combine effectively with Roberto, and bulk of his passes were back to Busquets or Frenkie or Messi back into the midfield. If he is to continue playing as a winger down the right, he has to strengthen his combination play along the wing a lot more. Being able to take on defenders will be an additional bonus too. Right now, the right side is very limited as compared to the left. It remains to be seen if and when Sergino Dest can change the dynamic there upon arrival.
As has been mentioned earlier in the data table, the PPDA recorded by neither of the teams were particularly impressive. PPDA is a proxy for pressing intensity – the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive actions. From Wyscout, Barca recorded a PPDA of 15 while Villareal had a PPDA of 22. In other words, Barca allowed Villareal to pass around for 15 times on average before trying to win the ball back with some defensive action like tackles or interceptions. Compared to the European pressing elites like Bayern Munich or Manchester City, these numbers are pretty bad. It was evident during the game that Barcelona didn’t go all out trying to press. They picked and chose moments when to. Same goes for Villareal as well. They showed too much respect to Barca, and allowed them to build from the back very comfortably. Here are the defensive heatmaps of each team:
Its very clear how Barca didn’t try to high-press for bulk of the game, and how Villareal spent of lot time trying to defend against the threat of Jordi Alba and Ansu Fati.
For Barcelona, Gerard Pique was a rock, and so was Lenglet. Neither of them allowed a Villareal forward to run past them, and blocked and cleared all shots and crosses into the box. Pique in particular was called into action many times because Roberto was caught way up the field in transitions. Belying his age, he put forth a magnificent defensive performance in sweeping up everything that came up his way.
Busquets and Frenkie, while mostly assured in passing, had their nervy moments as well. Busquets was particularly awful in the first 20-25 minutes. He repeatedly misplaced his passes and that led to repeated transition attacks against Barcelona. In the same vein, Frenkie, who played really well for the first 70 minutes, lost the ball at least three times in the last 20 minutes. Each of the resulting attacks by Villareal were threatening, and required timely interventions by Lenglet and attentive goalkeeping by Neto to snuff out. Going ahead, this is going to be a concern. Both of them need to clean their games up quite a bit.
Ousmanne Dembele, Miralem Pjanic, Francisco Trincao and Pedri had short cameos in the second half. All of them looked decent. Dembele kept it simple with his passing, and I for one am glad about it. He is returning from a long injury layoff and needs to take it slow and simple. There will be plenty of time to watch his explosive pace and dribbling once he has regained confidence and has stayed fit for a reasonable chunk of time. Pjanic seemed to have shaken off his rust and did pretty well to win the ball back on a couple of occasions, and was very clean with his passes. Pedri was his usual bumbling self. He helped out defensively, connected well with the wingers in passing, and was always a threat with his runs. Trincao looked impressive yet again, and could have scored his maiden goal for Barca but for a magnificent save by Asenjo. He meant business; trying to take on defenders, and trying to shoot whenever he found an opportunity.
There is no denying that Villareal was abjectly poor, especially in the first half (surprising given the players they managed to buy in the transfer window). They left behind lots of space that was ruthlessly exploited by Barcelona. Not all Spanish teams are going to give up similar amounts of space to Barca in the coming games. In fact, it’s probably best to assume that none will. In such tight games, it will be interestingly to see how this fluid 4-2-3-1 with Griezmann as a wide player manage to perform. I was personally happy with the game, and only look forward to more good performances from the team.