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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

Detailed Analysis: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Barcelona

Soumyajit Bose

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Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

In collaboration with Anurag Agate.


Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona faced Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano. In a game marred by defensive blunders and devastating injuries, Barcelona lost the game 1-0 to fellow title-challengers.


A 1-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in La Liga left Barcelona reeling midtable. This was also the first time Diego Simeone’s side beat Barcelona in the La Liga. Coupled with crucial injuries to Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto, Barcelona now face a dire path ahead of their UCL game against Dynamo Kyiv.

Barcelona structure and formation

Ronald Koeman went in with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. Marc Andre Ter Stegen started in goal again. Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet formed the centre back pairing, flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto. In the absence of Sergio Busquets, Miralem Pjanic stepped up to form the double pivot with the ever-present Frenkie de Jong.

Pedri and Ousmane Dembele played on the flanks, with Lionel Messi in the hole and Antoine Griezmann upfront. However, as before, Messi and Griezmann had lots of interchanging positions. Pedri played more in the half-space in possession while Dembele stayed out wide. This often made the team structure a lop-sided 4-4-2. In defensive transitions, it was always a 4-4-2 with Griezmann dropping deeper to defend. Messi restricted his pressing to zones high up the pitch.

Frenkie de Jong had the freedom to push up high in the first half. However, the absence of Ansu Fati meant that the usual overload on the left side did not work in this game. Pedri had a poor game in general. Him moving far too infield to let Alba run down the left did not quite work – the passing was far too restricted by Atleti’s excellent defending. A second-half injury to Pique meant that de Jong had to play 35 minutes roughly as a centre back, which he did very well.

Atletico structure and formation

Atletico were missing some key personnel as well, most notably perhaps, Luis Suarez up top. They also missed a regular left-back Renan Lodi, and Hector Herrera and Lucas Torreira in midfield. They lined up in a highly asymmetric 4-4-2/5-3-2 structure and style.

Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez formed the centre back partnership. Mario Hermoso played in a hybrid centre-back/extremely defensive full-back role. Kieran Trippier was the more offensive fullback, practically functioning as a wing-back. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente joined the reliable duo of Koke and Saul Niguez in central midfield as wide midfielders. Carrasco played almost in a hybrid wide midfield/wingback role. Joao Felix and Angel Correa formed the front two.

The hybrid system was particularly evident in the different phases of the game. In attack, Hermoso would push out wide like a full back but stay in more defensive, withdrawn zones. Carrasco had the freedom to stay wide looking for overlapping runs to meet Felix’s clever passes. On the other side, Llorente would shift infield, allowing Trippier to bomb forward.

Felix himself overlapped down the left side several times, trying to create numeric overloads against Roberto and Pique, dragging Pjanic wide in the process. Carrasco’s and Felix’s overlaps on the left, coupled with Saul Niguez moving ball-near side and Correa dropping in to give options – this combination created quite a few problems in the first half. Here is an example – it led to Saul’s shot early on which was saved by ter Stegen.

Game Stats

The game was more or less evenly balanced – neither team were outright dominant than the other in any aspect. Here is the game data at a glance:

Barcelona enjoyed marginally more possession, marginally more shots and shots on target, and a better press than Atletico. Of course, the hosts had the all-deciding goal in their favour. Neither team generated high-quality shots overall, as the shot map and xG flowchart shows :

Barcelona’s possession superiority was pretty stale. Barcelona failed to dominate critical territorial zones, measured by field tilt – which is the percentage share of final third passes of each team. Even though Barcelona had higher field tilt, it was only marginal. What strikes out is that just the goal came when Barcelona were enjoying their best bit of territorial dominance.

Buildup to shots and goals

Next we take a look at some of the shots and the goal. Early on, Barcelona had the chance to score. Dembele burned his marker with pace and sent a cross into the box. It was met by a clever flick by Greizmann. The shot sailed high unfortunately.

Atleti had their chances on the other side as well. Soon after Saul saw his shot saved, the other flank created yet another moment of danger. A brilliant interchange of passing involving Correa and Trippier met Llorente’s clever run into the box. The shot crashed against the bar.

Towards the end of the first half, Barcelona could have scored again. There was a brilliant bit of buildup, a clever run by Griezmann to drag a defender, and then Messi ghosted blindside of the center mids to meet Alba’s nutmeg pass. The angle was too tight and Messi failed to score.

Soon after, Barcelona conceded the goal. Pique stepped up to intercept a long ball. Ideally, that should have been fine, except Pique miscontrolled the pass. That left almost everyone out of position. A simple ball over the top released Carrasco into oceans of space. But the maddening part perhaps was that ter Stegen left his box wildly to tackle the Belgian. He missed; Carrasco did not – he scored into an empty net from distance.

In the second half, Barcelona had chances to equalize. However, Lenglet headed straight at Jan Oblak twice. Greizmann headed straight at Oblak once. Barcelona failed to engineer any better chances than those. The key passes map shows the crosses into the box:

Passing Characteristics

Atletico’s strength lies in engaging from wide areas. In this game, their biggest threats came again from the wide zones. Hermoso, Koke, Saul and Felix regularly released Carrasco and Trippier down the flanks. Trippier would often look for cutbacks or layoff into Llorente upfield.

Barcelona on the other hand tried to create from all possible zones. Frenkie de Jong managed to pull off a wonderful long pass into the box that Greizmann miscontrolled. Dembele single-handedly created chances from the right. The combinations of Alba and Messi created – in subdued amounts – danger from the other side.

For Barcelona, Messi, de Jong, Dembele and Alba were the bulk progressive passers. For Atleti, Koke, Trippier, Hermoso and Savic progressed the ball the most.

Both teams also tried to use width a lot. Surprisingly, Barcelona had more switches of play than Atleti, who have built their game to attack wider areas. For Barcelona, perhaps the reason for frequent switching was that they could not progress a lot directly.

Defence

The game data table posted above shows us that neither team pressed a lot. PPDA, which is a proxy for pressing intensity, was around 20 for both teams (low values of PPDA indicate high pressing). Here are the maps showing the defensive activities of both team:

Atleti forbade any progress down the centre. Upfield, they tried to press Pedri and Alba from creating too much danger. Deep in their half, they tried to force Dembele as wide as possible and tried to isolate him. Barcelona pressed all over the pitch in the middle-third. In deeper zones, they had to deal with the wide threats of Carrasco and Felix, and Llorente’s infield runs. The following plot also shows how Atleti forced passes wide and forced mistakes :

Two recurring issues troubled Barcelona yet again. The lack of chemistry and the lack of experience of the youth meant that certain runs went untracked. Atleti’s rapid front line dragged Barcelona into wrong zones, allowing trailing players to ghost into blindside runs. Saul and Llorente’s efforts at goal are perfect examples of this. In the first case, Pjanic was pulled in, leaving Saul free. In the second case, Pedri’s inexperience led to him losing his mark against Llorente completely.

Speed is always an issue that Barcelona has had trouble against. Llorente’s quick underlaps created quite a bit of trouble for Lenglet. Here is yet another example of a run – the pass from Llorente was thankfully cleared.

Conclusion

The goal was a combination of poor positioning and lack of speed, combined with some poor touch and terrible decision-making. Pique was out of position when he made the failed interception. No one in the team was speedy enough to catch up to Carrasco down the left. Ter Stegen should have communicated better with Lenglet and stayed in the box because Lenglet was haring down to secure the centre.

Issues have now been compounded with injuries to Pique and Roberto. If they face lengthy spells away from the pitch, Barcelona are stretched thin in the defence department. De Jong looks set to continue as a centre back for the next game at the very least and Sergino Dest will have to start. Barcelona faces extremely testing times ahead.

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