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.
Detailed Analysis: Elche CF 0-2 FC Barcelona
Coming into this match, Barcelona were in good form statistically with only one loss and two draws in the last 12 games. Elche, a team with a sub-par record to say the least against Barcelona, had only two wins in the last 10 games. Barcelona were the favourites, but despite this, the performance wasn’t without hiccups for the Catalans.
Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona lined up in a 4-3-3 as expected. The game plan remained the same as always; maintaining possession, attacking consistently, and playing a game that emphasized passing and hence, bringing out the best in a team that was technically much superior to the opposition was the philosophy. The full-backs were key to this. Jordi Alba and Oscar Mingueza would regularly move up the field.
To facilitate this, Sergio Busquets would stay back on the attack, and a very high defensive line was employed. The wingers would stay wide, with Antoine Griezmann down the middle. The Frenchman would be seen dropping back to even out the numbers in midfield, while linking-up the play.
When building up, Busquets would often drop back to receive the ball. Considering Elche’s system, playing centrally was a problem. Hence, the ball would often be passed to the wings. The alternative included a staggering of midfield. Staggering is especially effective when the players are marked very tightly by the opposition.
Here, we have an example of the same. As the ball is with Samuel Umtiti, the Elche midfielder would appropriately step forward and prevent the centre-back from progressing with the ball. This would create a small window of opportunity when another midfielder would be moving to mark Pedri, seen in the circle on the far side, and space would be formed between the defensive lines. Frenkie De Jong is closer to Busquets as we see, which complemented his dynamic ball-progression. However, both interiors would regularly try to get into the box as seen in the 4-3-3 employed by Koeman this season, which led to both of Barcelona’s goals.
Jorge Almiron’s Elche side lined up in a 4-5-1. Their aim was to defend with organization, prevent Barcelona from finding space centrally, and attack through quick combinations and long-balls. The four-man defence was the core of Elche’s setup. As we see in the image below, the team was in a well defined 4-5-1. Lucas Boye, the sole striker, would look to press Barcelona’s defenders depending on who had the ball. However, with a major numerical superiority in the build-up phase, the Catalans had few problems getting the ball to midfield.
Another aspect of the team that we can see from the image above is the structure of the midfield line. Victor Rodriguez and Ivan Marcone are man-marking Frenkie De Jong and Sergio Busquets here. The middle-three of the five midfielders had an important job. Depending on Barcelona’s players, they would have to change the player they were marking while making sure not to give space through central areas.
When building up from the back, Elche would have one player very close to the goalkeeper. The central-defenders would stay in the box with the full-backs occupying the field higher up as the image below shows us. The midfield would completely split during this phase. Firstly, Marcone would drop back into defence. Secondly, the wide-midfielders, Emiliano Rigoni and Josan would move further up the field and look to occupy Barcelona’s full-backs. Raul Guti and Victor Rodriguez would be the two players remaining in midfield as we see here.
Almiron’s side should theoretically have done much better in progressing the ball. Once the ball was launched over to the full-backs, they would form triangles on either side with the wide-midfielders up the field, and the central midfielders laterally. The problem was of technical quality. Many times, the intention behind the combinational play was admirable, but the execution would go haywire.
When Elche had the ball, Barcelona would immediately counter-press. Due to this, there were times when Elche lost the ball in Barcelona’s half with many players committed forward. Following this, Barcelona would find a lot of space to progress. As we see in the image below, Barcelona have just won possession in their own half. Elche have five players in the opposition’s half, and Barcelona have five, including Busquets, ready to attack. This was a recurring theme.
The problem with this was Elche’s full-backs failing to fall back in time. As we can see, Ousmane Dembele is completely free to make a run behind the defence. Though organized when without the ball, Elche’s defensive line was chaotic when caught on the counter. This led to Barcelona getting many chances on the counter. However, a combination of individual errors from Barcelona’s players and Elche’s willingness to absorb pressure, the Catalans lacked the final, decisive pass.
In the image below, we see another important aspect of Elche’s game plan. They would always look to force Barcelona wide and attempt nullifying the threat. Forcing a technically astute side to play down the wings can often be a good way to cope with them, but Elche failed to be solid enough in defence as both the goals showed.
Barcelona look to be finding their rhythm, after a slow start to the season. This victory was a step in the right direction for the Catalans, while Miguel Almiron’s side was a model example of a team’s technical limitations hindering the tactics. Elche have much work to do as this matchup clearly reinforced. However, this matchup could have easily gone the other way if not for a great save by Ter Stegen to keep Barcelona 0-1 up. Either way, an important three points, and a crucial first goal for Riqui Puig.
The Blaugrana are on their way to becoming greater than the sum of their parts but are yet to prove themselves against stronger opposition.