Making the headlines since day one, we present an in-depth review of La Masía young gem Ansu Fati, his profile, playing style and what to expect from him.
The first team is the main focus of most culés. The side that attracts most of their attention and the one that influences the emotions of so many people around the globe, every week. However, throughout its history, a large part of the success of FC Barcelona has depended on the homegrown products the club has produced.
From Pep Guardiola, Sergi Barjuán, Guillermo Amor and Chapi Ferrer, to Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernández, Víctor Valdés, Gerard Piqué, Pedro Rodríguez, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Sergi Roberto and, obviously, Lionel Messi. These are just some of the players that, over the years, have carried the essence of the institution, created hope when they were youngsters and made an impact in professional competitions. For these reasons, it would be completely unfair not to devote part of our efforts to promoting one of Barcelona’s most precious treasures: La Masía.
To this end, every week we will be discussing a specific talent from our glorious academy. Kids from the Prebenjamín (U8) all the way up to the Juvenil A (U19), and excluding the two highest ranks, Barça and Barça B, could feature in these new weekly series: La Masía Talents. To clarify, these are the names of the different age groups in Spanish football and in La Masía:
Also, it is worth noting that each age group is usually divided into ‘A’ or ‘B’, and sometimes ‘C’ or ‘D’, to separate generations. For example, the Juvenil A acts as a sort of U19 or U18, while the Juvenil B behaves as a U18 or U17. Players that, quality-wise, are well above those of his age can obviously get promoted. It’s the case of, among many others, Ilaix Moriba, born in 2003 and who should be playing with the Cadete A, but instead has the level to be a starter in Víctor Valdés’ Juvenil A.
Keeping this in mind, we kick off episode 1 of this new section with another footballer that is competing on a regular basis with people much older than him. And he’s none other than Ansu Fati, the boy that has been making the headlines in the past weeks with stellar appearances in the first team…at the age of 16.
Anssumane Fati, commonly known as Ansu Fati, was born in Guinea Bissau on October 31, 2002. However, when he was 6 he moved with his family to Herrera, a tiny town in Seville, in southern Spain. In 2009, shortly after arriving in Europe, he joined the modest Escuela Peloteros de Herrera and stayed there for three seasons.
His quality didn’t go unnoticed and he was signed by Sevilla’s academy, yet a year later Albert Puig would convince him and his father Bori to move to La Masía despite the interest from Madrid, Betis, Zaragoza or Sevilla themselves, who wanted to retain him. After learning that Ansu would move to Barcelona, Sevilla decided not to play him anymore and, in order not to be inactive, Fati chose to play some friendlies with Sextacampeones de Herrera, a Real Madrid supporters group.
“I have been watching football for 50 years and I’ve never seen anyone like him. He’s got a great personality; he’s not scared of anyone”Ansu Fati’s first coach, José Luis Pérez Mena, from Sextacampeones de Herrera, after Ansu’s debut with Barça’s first team
He and his elder brother Braima continued to impress for Barça as soon as they arrived. Ansu started to play with Marc Serra’s Alevín A, with teammates one year older than him, and he formed a lethal partnership with Take Kubo, now on loan at Mallorca from Real Madrid. In that league campaign, Kubo scored 73 goals and Fati, acting as a striker, 56. An unbelievable team that also featured the likes of Eric García, currently at Man City, and Arnau Tenas, goalkeeper for the Juvenil A.
Ansu would then suffer two major setbacks when, first, the FIFA ban on Barça didn’t allow him to play with the Juvenil B as he was less than 15 years old, and, second, he picked a serious injury in a derby with Espanyol. His progress was not hindered, though. In the 18/19 he was one of the stars of the U19, scoring 20 goals – top goalscorer in his side – and providing 9 assists in all competitions, including the UEFA Youth League.
Ansu Fati, with the Juvenil A in the 2018/19 UEFA Youth League | Photo by FC Barcelona
While his brother Braima plays on loan at Calahorra from Barça B, Ansu received in the summer of 2019 a new 3-year contract with an eye-watering €100-million release clause and, even if he didn’t travel to the preseason tours in Japan and the US and was expected to keep playing with the Juvenil A and Barça B at maximum, he was surprisingly called to train with the first team on 21 August. His parents first thought it was a joke.
Three days later, and with the injuries of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Ousmane Dembélé, he was included in the squad to host Real Betis at the Camp Nou. Aged 16 and 298 days, before even appearing with the reserves, he became the second-youngest ever debutant for Barcelona in the league, after Vicenç Martínez, as he was introduced to the game for the final 12 minutes. Recently, Ansu was granted his Spanish passport that permits him to take part in the U17 World Cup, yet he could instead be called up for Spain’s U21 during the international break as the board want him to stay for the upcoming Clásico. Big words.
As normal, many people see Ansu Fati as an electric and fast left-winger. Notwithstanding, as mentioned previously, he used to be a centre-forward before arriving at the Juvenil. Then, José Mari Bakero, who was in charge of professional youth football at Barcelona, spoke with his family and told them that they would start using him on the left flank. Look where hs is now.
The teenager has a filthy technique to beat his mark in one-on-ones, yet he’s not the typical unselfish winger who only looks in one direction. Fati knows when to accelerate and when to slow down and link up with those around him, and understands the Barcelona’s possession football to perfection. He has great vision and imagination, which, combined with his dribbling skills, innate talent, and pace, make up a complete package that possesses everything you would look for in an attacker. A journalist from Barça TV Jaume Marcet defined him this way: “He passes like an interior, dribbles like a winger, assists like an attacking midfielder and scores like a striker“.
Ansu Fati plays with the first team like he did at La Masía | Photo by FC Barcelona
Still, in spite of all his gift, what has impressed fans the most during his first six apps for Barça has been his personality. You would usually expect a 16-year-old that is fulfilling his childhood dream of debuting at the Camp Nou to be somewhat scared or nervous, afraid of failing and of creating a negative impression on the millions of people watching. But Ansu is rare, unique.
In his first clash against Betis, he already showed glimpses of his quality, and since then he has always been among our standout performers, no matter the rival or the stadium. With or without the absences of our stars, he has consistently been taking on responsibilities and even leading the team in the offensive phase. Doing it against more physical and experienced defenders, sometimes double his age, and in the best competitions in the world. He obviously seems to be dealing with pressure well.
“He’s pure anarchy when he plays, and you need to give this kind of talents liberty, not hide them out wide: they need to do what’s natural to them. He’s the jewel of La Masía”Víctor Valdés, Juvenil A coach
Curiously enough, where he probably has the most room for improvement is in his finishing. He has already found the net twice in the First Division, one of them being a header in spite of being 1.78 meters tall, and he mostly creates his own chances by running into free space. He registers many shots per 90 thanks to this extraordinary positioning and anticipation and if he converted more of the goalscoring opportunities he generates, he could end up with scary figures.
What to expect from Ansu Fati?
When analysing other gems, we may say things such as “he has a ceiling high enough to reach the first team” or “he could be a valuable alternative for the squad”. Ansu, though, is bigger than that and has outpaced those of his same generation. The Guinea Bissau-born attacker has already ticked the box of debuting and shining in the elite, so the next step should be not to lower his level and keep performing on a regular basis. We have seen countless examples – Bojan Krkić, Marc Muniesa, Gerard Deulofeu, Adama Traoré and Munir el Haddadi, to name a few – of precocious talents that failed to live up to expectations at Barcelona over time. Nevertheless, every case is different and Fati will look to write his own history.
When he was (even) younger, you could already predict that he had the ways of a superstar, but the most exciting part is that he has already proved that he can translate this potential into a reality in the A-side. La Masía’s crown jewel. The onus now is on us to protect him and have patience with him. If he has to return to the Juvenil A or Barça B in order to get more playtime, so be it. Remember: he’s only 16 years old.
Best starting XI of ex-La Masía players
With the once-glorious academy ignored in the last few years, Barça Universal attempts to put together a starting XI of the best ex-La Masia players in the world, based on their ability and form.
FC Barcelona’s fabled La Masía is often regarded as one of the best academies in world football. Having produced players like Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta, and Xavi Hernández, to name a few, it’s no question why.
The Blaugrana are in a fortunate spot where they can integrate promising youngsters from their youth teams into their senior squad; however, in recent years, there has been a divergence from this approach. Consequently, Barça have seen their fair share of homegrown starlets slip through the cracks.
In this piece, we at Barça Universal will be forming a starting eleven of the best active ex-La Masía players in the world. Based on their quality and recent performances, these are the best eleven players who either left the Catalan club at a young age or never cemented a place in the first team. We have decided to go through with a 4-2-3-1 formation for the team.
GK: André Onana
Between the sticks, there are few better than André Onana. The Cameroonian international left Barça at 19, and has not looked back since. He’s developed into a premier goalkeeper and has been linked with a move to big clubs all across Europe.
“I think André [Onana] is fantastic. He came to Ajax aged 18 or 19 and the way he developed, and the natural attributes that he already had, his speed, his reaction… I think he set himself as a great goalkeeper.”Edwin van der Sar, 2018
Onana has decisive command of his box, quick reflexes, and is a great shot-stopper. Across 31 appearances last season, he had 11 clean sheets and a formidable 75.5% save percentage. He has also led the Champions League in the last two campaigns with post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed, a stat that measures how well a keeper fares against shots that are expected to go in. He achieved a mark of +4.5, meaning he prevented Ajax from conceding almost five extra goals.
The Catalans would surely regret letting him go if they did not have Marc-André ter Stegen taking charge of the gloves.
RB: Héctor Bellerín
Héctor Bellerín is a clear choice at right-back, edging out the only other realistic option, Real Betis’ Martín Montoya. The Spaniard left Barça in 2011 for Arsenal, after spending 8 years at the club. Although injuries have derailed his recent progress, he’s become a key asset for the Gunners.
Bellerín is quite talented, consistently blistering down the right-hand side with his pace and influencing all aspects of the game. He’s finding his footing after being in and out of the lineup for the last few seasons but already has two assists this campaign. He also earned his first national team call-up since 2016; a positive sign of things to come, maybe.
CB: Eric García
Whether due to his ability or the fact that he left La Masía for a Manchester club, Eric García has been dubbed by some to be the next Gerard Piqué. He spent nine successful years in Barcelona’s academy before joining Manchester City in 2017.
Pep Guardiola wooed Eric Garcia away from Barcelona, and the teenager has proved him right. (Photo via Getty)
Despite being only 19 years old, García plays with poise and composure beyond his years. As a ball-playing defender, he’s comfortable in possession and sharp with his passing, averaging a 96% completion rate last season and 93.8% this season. His high tactical awareness and high-grade positioning make up for lack of aerial prowess.
“He’s so smart, so intelligent. His physicality is not so, so strong, but he resolves the situation by thinking. I like to work with smart people, intelligent people. He is one of them. I can count on him.”Pep Guardiola, 2019
In recent months, García has been linked with a move back to his boyhood club, a testament to his abilities and a sign that Barça repent letting him go. His quality and high-ceiling make him an unquestioned choice at centre-back for this list.
CB: Marc Bartra
The other player in the heart of the defence is Marc Bartra. The 29-year-old could never quite cement a spot in Barça’s first team and was often a backup for Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, and Javier Mascherano. Consequently, he left the club in 2016 for Borussia Dortmund, after making over 100 appearances for the first team and winning 13 trophies.
Like most La Masía-bred defenders, Bartra is lauded for his passing ability. He adds to that with his top-notch aerial ability and solid tackling.
He now finds himself playing in the La Liga with Real Betis, where he’s a key member of their squad, and one of the first names in the list for the Seville outfit. Admittedly, there aren’t a lot of centre-backs to choose from, but Bartra still deserves his spot on this list.
LB: Álex Grimaldo
Rounding out the defence is Álex Grimaldo. He was revered as a youngster, making over 100 appearances for Barça’s B-team, but ended up leaving for Benfica in 2016 in search of more playing time, when that spot became Jordi Alba’s to lose.
Grimaldo is quick, intelligent, a great dribbler, and is a persistent threat going forward, fitting perfectly into Benfica’s expansive, attacking side. Since the 2018-19 season, he has 23 assists and eight goals across all competitions.
“For me, Grimaldo is one of the best five left-backs in Europe. Many Benfica players are ready to, someday, play in a world-class team. Grimaldo is good enough to play for any side right now.”Tiago Pinto (Benfica Sporting Director), 2020
The left-back has quietly developed into one of the best in the world at his position and is certainly someone Barça should wish they could have right now. He’s one of the best players in this list, and his inclusion goes with little to no fuss.
CM: Thiago Alcântara
Thiago: the one that got away. Despite his immense talent, he was unlucky in his first few years at Barça having to find a spot in the first team midfield that was dominated by the likes of prime Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets. A certain Cesc Fabregas was left as an outcast in this team; there was only so much Thiago could do. As a result, he left the Catalan giants in the summer of 2013 for Bayern Munich, where he would cement his status as one of the best midfielders in the world.
One that keeps the Barça administration and fans up at night all the same. (Photo via Imago)
The Spanish international is lauded for his technical prowess and intelligence. He’s a great passer, averaging over 89% completion rate for the past four seasons, has fantastic vision and is a treat to the eyes on the ball. He’s not only an ideal Barça midfielder but a world-beater by any metric.
Thiago was a key part of Bayern’s treble-winning side last season and now finds himself at the heart of Liverpool’s midfield. He’s a player Barça should have tried to sign back and will be remembered as one of the best La Masia graduates of the last decade.
CM: Oriol Romeu
Oriol Romeu may not be a familiar name to most, nor is he someone fans are clamouring to have back, but his performances this season for an impressive Southampton have earned him a spot in this XI.
Romeu left the Catalan side in 2011 for Chelsea but struggled to settle anywhere before moving to Southampton in 2015.
The Saints are currently sitting fourth in the Premier League heading into the international break, in no small part thanks to Romeu. He’s played in all eight league games this season and is third in total minutes played for his side. The Spaniard is an anchor in the midfield, aggressive in tackles and inept at stopping plays. He’s leading the Premier League in tackles this season, averaging 4.42 tackles plus interceptions per game.
He’s not what you could call the idea player for Barça or one the club necessarily laments selling, but he has been truly incredible this season and deserves recognition all the same.
RW: Adama Traoré
Adama Traoré followed the path of many before him, leaving the Camp Nou for greener grass. He made his first-team debut at only 17 years old and managed to grab one goal in four appearances, but the front three of Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez would see him get little-to-no playing time.
Culés still remember Adama Traore’s fantastic solo goal in the Copa del Rey. (Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP)
Traoré settled in at Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2018 and has realised his potential there. He had a breakout season last year, with 6 goals and 10 assists, as well as an astounding 5.22 successful dribbles per game — one of the highest in Europe. This season, the Spanish International is leading the Premier League in terms of the number of players dribbled past — 30 in eight matches.
The 24-year-old is a magnificent player. His physical attributes stand out, being one of the strongest and fastest players in the world, and unstoppable at his best; but he’s much more than that. His technical ability and close control are excellent, and that coupled with his physical gifts make him a sight to behold on the pitch.
The Spaniard’s inclusion in this list is fairly straightforward. He’s on a meteoric rise and is the type of squad option Barça wish they could have right now.
CAM: Dani Olmo
Filling in behind the striker is Dani Olmo, yet another starlet Barça that slipped through the cracks. He spent seven years at La Masía before a shocking move to Dinamo Zagreb in 2014, but the decision has fared well for him. He dominated his spell with the Croatian side, tallying 34 goals and 28 assists in 124 appearances.
The 22-year-old is now a squad member at RB Leipzig, where he’s dazzling the Bundesliga with his dribbling, creativity, and vision. He has three assists in seven Bundesliga appearances this season and is only getting better.
Olmo is one of the brightest young Spaniards in the world and is currently in their squad for the international break.
LW: Marc Cucurella
Marc Cucurella never had a chance to prove himself at Barça, and he’s now excelling at Getafe. He was developed as a left-back but has now been successfully converted into a wide midfielder, playing on the left of a 4-4-2, since making a permanent move to the Madrid outfit in July this year.
Cucurella is a work-horse on both sides of the ball. Defensively, he’s a pest who consistently tracks the ball and fights for it, making up for any lack of physical prowess. He’s also great at pressing and tackling for a physical Getafe side, averaging 3.38 tackles and interceptions per game last season.
Offensively, he darts down the left-hand side and utilizes his pace and stamina along with his noteworthy off the ball movement. He had five assists last campaign and will be looking to improve upon that.
Cucurella may not be the flashiest name here, but much like Oriel Romeu, his recent performances are commendable, thus earning him this spot at left-mid.
ST: Mauro Icardi
Rounding out the team is Mauro Icardi, a name some might not recognize as an ex-La Masía player. Although he has off-the-field issues, his sheer talent alone sanctions his spot in this draft. Not to mention, his prolific goalscoring record as well.
The Argentine left the Catalans in 2011 after a brief 3-year stint. After a few seasons in Sampdoria, he moved to Internazionale Milan, where he broke out, gathering 124 goals and 28 assists in 219 appearances. In his current club PSG, the goals have continued raining in as he has scored 22 times in only 38 appearances.
The 2018 Serie A Player of the Year is a classic #9 who prefers to do all his damage in the penalty box. As a forward, he’s lethal in front of goal and always makes the right movements to get into scoring positions.
“In my opinion, Icardi is the second-best striker in the penalty box who I’ve ever marked.”Giorgio Chiellini, 2018
Icardi may not be a player Barça would desperately want to return, give his multiple tantrums or one that fits their style, but he’s the best ex-La Masía striker in the world, and that stands almost without question.
If this starting eleven indicates anything, it’s that Barça should be diverting more attention to La Masía and the gems they produce. Promising youngsters like Grimaldo, Olmo, and Traoré should have never departed without being given ample time to prove themselves, and the club should hope that history doesn’t repeat itself with prospects like Riqui Puig.
There are plenty of good players – Munir El Haddadi, Rafinha Alcântara, Cristian Tello, for instance –who didn’t make this list due to positional constraints or being edged-out by better options, and they serve as a further example of how much talent Barça has let slip through the cracks in recent memory. This is not to say that all La Masía graduates will grow up to reach the heights of Messi or Xavi, but they should all at least have the chance to stake their claim in the first team.