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Analysis

Winger or 9: Which version of Ansu Fati does Barça need?

Dario Poggi

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Header Image by Jorge Guerrero / AFP via Getty Images

Anssumane “Ansu” Fati Vieira. A kid, a talent that has been mesmerising the world stage for a year now. A prodigy that has been making wonders since the day Ernesto Valverde decided to put a little faith in him. As the games go by, so does the youngster’s destiny as the future big thing in the worldwide stage. But considering the needs Barça have at the moment, should Ansu Fati keep flying the left wing or centralise his influence to be a number 9?


Who would have known that Ernesto Valverde would have ended up gifting Barcelona of such a diamond? Probably, nobody. But the reality has been giving Barça fans at least a hope in the last desperate times. And this hope has a name and a surname: Ansu Fati.

The young Spanish international, born in Guinea-Bissau, has recently broken yet another record, that of the youngest player to ever score with La Roja‘s senior national team. He seems to continue his year-lasting development towards football’s elite. But as the raw material in him is still very much vivid and editable, it is rational keep asking ourselves which position would better suit him.

As in even earlier stages of his academy journey, Ansu Fati has always been synonymous with class. Precocious for his age, he has always shown that kind of talent that you don’t see often. Even comparing him with La Masía’s standards. And that alone should mean something by itself.

Often used as a striker in his youth career, as a number 9, Ansu Fati was able to net lots of goals without decreasing his centre of attraction and creative way of playing. Intelligent and decisive with the ball, rational off the ball with those wider movements and inner diagonals behind the opponent’s defensive line. A pure talent.

Ansu Fati Barcelona 9

In his first year as a professional, Ansu Fati has been breaking records and barriers at breakneck speed | Photo by Pau Barrena / AFP via Getty Images

With the 2019/2020 season opening, culés seemed more desperate than ever, seeing their captain Lionel Messi and the club’s third top goalscorer in their history, Luis Suárez, injured. Hopeless until this kid showed up. A kid who brought not only excitement to the blaugrana environment, but also fresh legs and light attitude to a very stressed dressing room. His involvement to the big boys table could not have been quicker: cross, imposing header and goal. That was his welcome to La Liga: a star was born.

But as both Valverde and Quique Setién gave him the chances to shine, Barcelona fans who do not have a clue about what he has achieved and done with the youth sides could not forecast the thought of Ansu Fati being used as a pure striker. Why would such a talented winger have to limit his influence zone by occupying a central, dense position?

During the previous season, the Spanish wonderkid has been constantly showcasing his talent under one and only one role: the left-winger one. Whatever the other offensive line-up was compromised of, Ansu Fati’s position has always been that on the circumstances he played. And that position has also been the one that made all the Barcelona fans fall in love with him.

If it already wasn’t for his skilful abilities, his technical likeness to a former Brazilian player that walked through the Camp Nou recently was evident: Neymar Júnior seemed to be back at Barça, or at least a younger, cheaper, but not less qualitative version of him. Everything should be put into context though, but his movements and feints really remembered all culés nostalgic moments.

Ansu’s involvement with the Catalan team has increasingly been more influential during the year, yet still not at the level a guy with his talent should aspire to. Now, with the spectacular performance he delivered with Spain, the whole world, let alone around the Camp Noup stands, awaits for his brilliance to be brought upon Barcelona. But with new coach Ronald Koeman having numerous choices to pick from, where will really Ansu Fati feature from?

His finishing skills have never been doubted at youth level and with time they are most likely to get turned over to the first team, but should scoring goals be his main objective? Not at all. You see, as much as scoring is a fundamental part of the game, every player in the pitch should be cohesively working towards a collective goal. It will not be an individual to score more or less goals for Barça, but the group effort. And so, Ansu Fati should focus on refining his sparkles.

Ansu Fati Spain Barcelona 9

In his first start with Spain against Ukraine, Ansu Fati started as a left winger and ended as the 9 | Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno via Getty Images

As shown for Spain, his main danger zone is an evolution of a series of steps into a predetermined path. Receiving the ball out wide, it is a continuous pursuit to the opponent’s defensive movements and, eventually, tackle. That is when his ability with the ball makes him deadly on the first change of direction and first touch acceleration. Finally, the proficiency from just outside the penalty box, as much as inside of it, is what makes his supporters think about an Ansu Fati closer to the box.

Yet finishing is something that eventually will come with experience, no matter whether you find yourself twenty meters from the goal or five meters from it. Finishing is experience, before anything else.

But Barça’s rebuilding should come with a plan. And a rebuild, as much as a long-term project, goes through a developing phase. Ansu Fati ha proven to be the perfect winger in Barça’s tactical system. And with Antoine Griezmann being promised a prominent role in Koeman’s plans, it is the right excuse to keep him down that left side, going into the pitch and mesmerising opponents.

Obviously Barça’s needs and the players’ wishes are most of the times very different things from each other, but in this case, the club has found both a gem and a need at the same time. Why waste it in searching for something that will come either way with time?

Ansu Fati will score lots of goals for Barça. There is no doubts about that. He already scored his debut goal even before the great Messi had done at his age, and we all know how well that has proved to be for the Argentinian. And just as Ansu, even Messi was a winger. You do the math.

Football is art. And art is meaningless without a touch of magic. As Italian, being in love with AC Milan since childhood was pretty common: humility, elegance and hunger has always been the common grounds. Then a little guy from Argentina landed in Barcelona, a kid called Lionel Messi. I began to get the word about him, until I watched him caressing that ball for the first time during the 2009 Champions League final: I was in love. So I decided to share my thoughts about Leo's journey with others, with the goal to create a respectful community about the greatest of all time – and some more.

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Analysis

Can Alexander Isak be the firepower Barcelona need in their attacking arsenal

Jan-Michael Marshall

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Photo via Imago

With incoming presidential elections and the resulting anticipation of a rebuild, more and more players are being linked to Barcelona. Besides big names like Erling Haaland and David Alaba, Real Sociedad centre-forward Alexander Isak is reportedly on the Catalans’ radar. A new striker is an absolute must for the club and Isak’s €70 million release clause is turning heads. His stock is rising and he has a bright future ahead of him, but should Barcelona pursue him?

Player Profile

Isak is currently in the midst of his second season for Basque-outfit Real Sociedad. The 21-year old started his career at the Swedish club AIK before moving to Borussia Dortmund’s youth setup in 2017. Lacking first-team opportunities, he was loaned to Dutch club Willem II, where he tallied an impressive 14 goals and 7 assists in 18 appearances. Isak then moved to Sociedad in the summer of 2019 and scored 16 goals in his debut season. This season, he has 12 goals in 29 appearances.

Isak is Sweden’s next star. (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

He has been dubbed the “next Zlatan Ibrahimovic” by some, and with the Swedish national team, Isak has scored five goals in 18 appearances.

Tactical and Statistical Analysis

Isak has all the attributes of a classic “target man”, one whose main role is to win aerial duels and play off of creative teammates, but his game is much more than that. He stands tall at 190 cm, or 6 foot 3 inches, but has incredible speed and balance. Despite his height, however, he is only winning 42% of his aerial duels this season.

Isak likes to play off the shoulder of the defence, eagerly waiting for through balls from creative midfielders like Mike Merino or David Silva. Alternatively, he can also hold the ball up. With his combination of speed and dribbling ability, he is a constant threat on the counter-attack, capable of getting past defenders or dragging bodies and creating space for runners. He also has decent vision and passing acumen for a centre forward, but Sociedad’s set up doesn’t allow him to maximize these qualities.

Isak has the speed and strength to bully players anywhere on the pitch. (Photo via Imago)

Statistically, he is averaging 1.36 dribbles per 90 minutes this season at a clip of 64.8%. According to fbref.com, when compared to forwards in Europe’s top five leagues (Spain, England, France, Germany, and Italy), Isak stands out in terms of his successful pressures rate (93rd percentile), pressures in the attacking third (81st percentile), and carries into the penalty area (87th percentile).

In front of the goal, Isak is dangerous with both his feet and his head. He is unpredictable with his finishing, always keeping defenders and goalkeepers on edge. This campaign, his 12 goals are fairly evenly distributed: six with his right foot, three with his left, and three with his head. Most of his goals have come from through balls or passes over the defence. He carries the ball in his stride and finishes with confidence.

Isak’s goal scoring locations for the 20/21 season, retrieved from understat.com

His goalscoring record was rough to start the season, scoring only four goals across 20 appearances, but he’s picked things up in 2021. The forward has been in rich vein of form, already scoring nine goals this calendar year. Furthermore, in La Liga, he has scored in each of his last six appearances, not to mention a hat trick last time out against Alavés. He could have a breakout season if he continues scoring at this rate, attracting offers from teams across Europe.

Where would he fit at Barça?

Naturally, Isak fits a need for the Blaugrana at centre forward. The team has no natural “number nine” –other than Martin Braithwaite — and with Messi entering his twilight years and potentially leaving in the summer, they desperately need goal-scorers. The Swedish international is well adapted to playing as a lone striker in a 4-3-3 system and is already accustomed to playing in La Liga, so Barça won’t need to worry about adaptation along those lines.

Tactically, his height and runs into the box could bring a different dimension to a fairly one-dimensional Barça attack. While he could fit in well with the team’s patient and possession-oriented approach, his game is more suited for runs into open spaces and spearheading counter attacks.

Isak is built for the modern game with immaculate pace and power. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

The question is, would he start for Barcelona? Messi is best suited for a false nine role, and Isak would not displace Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, or Ansu Fati in the front line. On the contrary, he could be an extremely productive squad option, but his potential transfer fee would be too high to warrant such a role.

Should Barcelona pursue him?

There are plenty of intriguing reasons for Barça to pursue Isak, but he should not be their number one transfer target. He undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him and is showing immense quality this season, but he might not be ready to carry Barcelona’s front line.

There will be a lot asked of him, and he will be expected to perform on the biggest stages in world football, and his zero goals in the Europa League this season are not reassuring. Despite his incredible form over the last few games, Barça need to see more consistent output if he is to be their number nine for the next decade.

Isak is incredible, but he has a long way to go. (Photo via Getty)

He would also cost the club around 70 million euros, and that money could serve the team better by investing that in other areas like centre back or centre defensive mid.

While he is still young and has time to improve, Barcelona should focus on more refined and finished products.

Closing Thoughts

On the one hand, Isak could bring a lot to the Blaugrana and offer much-needed variation to their attack. On the other hand, there are signs pointing to the fact that he is not yet the calibre of player Barcelona need to lead their frontline, especially for that sum of €70 million. He could be a more than sufficient squad option and someone who could develop in the long term, but once again, that transfer fee warrants caution.

Also, facilitating his move could be quite difficult given that his ex-team Borussia Dortmund have a reported €30 million “buy-back” clause attached to his name. If (and when) the German club are to lose Erling Haaland, they could easily opt for Isak as his replacement.

Maybe in a few years. (Photo via Imago)

Isak is a solid striker and has a lot of potential, but he is not yet the player capable of leading Barcelona’s front line. That paired with his potential transfer fee means the club should focus on other transfer targets first.

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