Ansu Fati… if you’ve never heard of Barcelona’s new superstar, you can be forgiven: until a couple of weeks ago, neither had the vast majority of the Spanish club’s fans.
Even so, Fati was expected to spend this season continuing to play for the youth team – now managed by former goalkeeper Victor Valdes – with occasional bonus outings for Barca B, and he was not included in the senior squad’s pre-season trips to Japan and the United States.
Fati wasn’t even considered for selection in Barca’s season opener against Athletic Bilbao, but when that game resulted in Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele suffering injuries, joining skipper Lionel Messi on the sidelines, manager Ernesto Valverde was suddenly left with a serious shortage of numbers in attack and called Fati into the squad for the home opener against Real Betis.
The 16-year-old made it to the bench and, with his team leading 5-1 and the game already won, was introduced as a substitute for the final 10 minutes. Fati instantly looked at home, producing some bright touches on the right wing and earning a warm congratulatory post-match embrace from Messi.
Even better came the following weekend. With Barca trailing 1-0 at half-time against Osasuna, Valverde reacted by calling Fati from the bench during the interval. The decision was vindicated within seven minutes, as Fati rose to meet a right-wing cross from Carles Perez with a pinpoint header into the bottom-left corner, becoming Barca’s youngest goalscorer.
Following the deadline-day departure to Celta Vigo of Rafinha – starter in the previous two games – Fati received another promotion from Valverde for Saturday’s visit of Valencia, being elevated into the starting line-up for the first time.
|Youngest Barcelona scorers in the 21st century|
|Ansu Fati||31 August 2019||Osasuna||16 years 304 days|
|Bojan||20 October 2007||Villarreal||17 years 53 days|
|Lionel Messi||1 May 2005||Albacete||17 years 312 days|
|Thiago Alcantara||20 February 2010||Racing Santander||18 years 315 days|
|Munir El Haddadi||24 August 2014||Elche||18 years 358 days|
Back down to the youth ranks?
Before you anticipate seeing Fati starring at the Nou Camp on a weekly basis, however, there is a clear message from within the club: slow down.
The reality is that Fati has only been able to enjoy his meteoric rise to the first team because Messi, Suarez and Dembele have all been out. When they are fit, the youngster will lose his place. In fact, that has already happened: Fati was taken off after an hour on Saturday for Suarez, who promptly marked his return from injury with two brilliantly taken goals.
And in the wake of Fati’s electrifying full debut, there were plenty of words of caution. Valverde emphasised the importance of “our job to protect the player”, while defender Clement Lenglet added: “We have to be calm with him. He needs to listen to people and work hard, because playing for Barca is very difficult.”
Despite the teenager’s stellar start to the campaign, it remains the case that Barca’s first-choice forward line this season will be Messi, Suarez and Antoine Griezmann, and the most Fati can hope to achieve is competing with Dembele for the status of first-choice back-up.
And that could be a closely fought battle. Valverde has never been truly convinced by Dembele, who is supremely gifted and frustratingly erratic in equal measure, and pundit Michael Robinson came down in Fati’s favour during his television commentary on Saturday’s game against Valencia, observing: “Fati on the pitch already looks more mature than Dembele.”
Fati certainly looks the part. He generally plays on the left wing (he wore the number 11 shirt in Barca’s youth teams), cutting inside to run at defenders or shoot with his stronger right foot. But he is also comfortable using his left foot, demonstrated by his assist for De Jong on Saturday, and at 5ft 10in he has a powerful frame and offers a good aerial threat, as shown by his excellent headed goal at Osasuna.
The fact Fati has already scored a header, a goal with his right foot and an assist with his left foot after just two hours of senior football is a neat indication of his all-round talents, and Barca fans are eager to see a lot more of him.
More immediately, though, Fati could receive the chance to shine on the international stage: the Spanish federation is reported to be rushing through the necessary paperwork to allow him to represent the country in the forthcoming Fifa Under-17 World Cup, which will be staged in Brazil in October and November.
Remember the name. Even now, Ansu Fati is becoming impossible to forget.