PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2020 — ANSU FATI

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“I have seen my son play for Barcelona, so I can now die happily.” That was how Ansu Fati’s father reacted to his son’s debut appearance for the Barcelona first team, when he came on for the final 12 minutes of the team’s 5-2 victory over Real Betis in August to become the youngest Barcelona player to make a League appearance since Vicenc Martinez Alama in 1941.

For the player’s father, seeing his son take to the Camp Nou turf to dazzle alongside superstars such as Antoine Griezmann, Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique, and to later receive a heartfelt embrace from the injured Lionel Messi, may have seemed like the pinnacle, but Fati’s story was only just beginning.

The following weekend he came on and scored a header away at Osasuna to become, at 16 years and 10 months, the youngest ever Barcelona player to score for the club in LaLiga and third-youngest of all time to find the back of the net in Spain’s top division, only behind Fabrice Olinga and Iker Muniain.

He wasn’t done yet. Following the September international break, his true breakout moment arrived in the first six minutes of La Blaugrana’s match against Valencia, another 5-2 victory. The young forward, who needed permission from his parents to play in the game due to night time labour laws for minors in Spain, scored just 114 seconds into the match, before providing an assist for Frenkie de Jong to put the team 2-0 up in the sixth minute. The ambitious young forward could have scored again, coming close on a couple of occasions as the entire footballing world searched around on the floor like Velma from Scooby-Doo, looking for the jaws that had dropped to the ground.

Fati had burst onto the scene like few players before him. The Messi comparisons were inevitable, but even Messi didn’t score his first senior goal until the age of 17, 10 months and seven days. That’s not to say Fati is or will become Messi. It’s just to say that he his rise to the footballing world’s attention has been much more sudden and rapid.

Like Messi, Fati is an international recruit to La Masia, Barcelona’s famed academy. However, he didn’t arrive straight from his native Guinea-Bissau. His family had moved to Herrera, a municipality in the province of Seville, when he was young and he passed through Sevilla’s academy. Yet his talent caught the attention of Barcelona and Real Madrid and the former won this battle, signing the then-nine-year-old prospect.

He has since come through the ranks at Barcelona, often playing above his age group and even sharing a team with one of the Spanish League’s other up-and-coming talents Takefusa Kubo, now at Real Madrid and currently on loan at Real Mallorca. Fati’s rise continued and continued until he reached Ernesto Valverde’s first team, skipping Barcelona B entirely. It should be mentioned that Barcelona’s attacking injury crisis at the start of the season helped Fati’s cause, as Messi, Ousmane Dembele and Luis Suarez all missed playing time in the first few weeks of the season. But the player wouldn’t have been thrown under the spotlight against top teams like Real Betis and Valencia if he wasn’t good enough. He proved he was good enough.

The moment that confirmed Fati’s arrival might actually be one that came away from the gazing eyes of the footballing world, away from Camp Nou. It came during the September international break when many of the team’s top players were away on international duty. While those left behind were granted some days off, they largely continued working under the orders of Valverde and Fati was one of these players. Even though the B team still had fixtures during those FIFA dates, it was decided that Fati would train with the first team rather than play in Spain’s third tier with the B team.

But what to do with Fati now? He is in a squad with some of the best attacking players in the world and, now that they have recovered from injury, they are logically ahead of him in the depth charts. Even the likes of 21-year-old Carles Perez or 20-year-old Riqui Puig have several years on Fati and should expect more opportunities, even if they play in slightly different positions.

There is an awareness that Fati is too good for his age range. After his paperwork came through in September to make him eligible to play for Spain, there was a debate about whether or not he should go to the Under-17 World Cup. While there were many pros and cons, one of the arguments that kept coming up centred around the fact that he’s simply be too good. To go from facing the defences of Champions League sides like Valencia and Borussia Dortmund to playing against kids didn’t make much sense.

In that same vein, dropping Fati back down to Victor Valdes’ Under-19 team at Barcelona or even to the B team could be detrimental. Not only could Fati find that level unstimulating but there are also other risks attached with this. The B team play in Spain’s third tier against senior teams of adults and superstar teenagers are often the victims of harsh, agricultural tackles. The pitches at this level and the style of play are also often nothing like those of the first division, so players sometimes completely stop developing the skills and traits that are needed for top-level football.

Fati is, therefore, set to keep training with the first team and will surely be given as many opportunities as possible by Valverde. However, it doesn’t help that the Copa del Rey, a tournament often used to blood young talents, has just been given a format makeover that sees every round until the semi-finals become one-legged and that sees top sides like Barcelona enter only at the round of 32. Including the final, the maximum number of cup fixtures that the Catalan giants can play is six. Last year, when they reached the final, they played nine matches.

These are the kinds of matches with the first team that Fati needs to play in 2020 to keep developing and to fix the things he still needs to work on. Nobody at Barcelona had more unsuccessful touches or was dispossessed more than Fati during his first few weeks with the senior side, but this is perfectly normal. He’ll learn to be even more careful with the ball and how to pass like the Spanish champions do.

There is absolutely no doubt that Fati is one of the future stars of Spanish football. He is more than a very young player who happened to score a goal and break a record. He is a really, really good footballer, one who can already hold is own and who should only get better.

Opportunities are hard to come by at Barcelona, but they shouldn’t be for this player who the club are willing to fully back. While he’s unlikely to be a starter for blockbuster matches at the business end of the 2019-20 season, 2020 should still be a huge year for this young striker as he’ll be an even more integral part of the first team squad at the beginning of the 2020-21 season. Perhaps that’ll be under a new Coach, but for now it’s encouraging just how keen Valverde is to embrace this exciting teenager. His father has every right to feel proud.

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