FC Barcelona, overall, have been very good this season. Xavi’s side are first in La Liga, although they’re not always convincing. They’ve had a lot of players perform quite well. The back line has been good, Pedri and Ousmane Dembélé were playing very well before their injuries, and Robert Lewandowski has been netting plenty of goals. But the one player that Xavi and his staff haven’t been able to elevate is Ansu Fati. Why is that?
Context first. Ansu burst onto the scene as a talented 16-year-old, scoring some wonderful goals. But then, he was ravaged by injuries. First, a knee issue that kept him out for almost a year. Then, a hamstring issue, notorious for how bothersome they are. Now, he’s 20, and trying to make his way back. Having been given the number 10 jersey and the pressure that comes with it, fans are expecting him to return to the promise he showed when he was 16.
More context. Dembélé and Raphinha have been quite good this season, as has Robert Lewandowski. With them up front, as well as Ferran Torres, it was always going to be hard for a returning-from-injury Ansu to get minutes, let alone break into the starting XI. That’s all the more reason to optimize the minutes he does get. But Lewandowski and Dembélé have been injured, giving Ansu a chance for more minutes.
He’s clearly been desperate for a goal for quite some time now. That’s why it’s all the more frustrating to see Ansu’s recent misusage by Xavi and his staff. Xavi’s system has improved the play of many players in this side, but his treatment of attacking players, especially wingers, has been baffling at times.
Xavi primarily plays Ansu Fati on the left wing, which in principle is a perfectly fine place to play him if you’ve got a good striker. But the absence of Lewandowski throws a wrench into the works there. Xavi has, for the last several games, played Ferran Torres as a false 9. Why? Ferran hasn’t shown enough in that position to justify his place there, and his recent string of good performances had all come on the wing. It doesn’t look like Ferran is particularly comfortable playing through the center anyway. He hasn’t been a huge goal scoring threat there, and his link-up play hasn’t been great.
Ansu should play through the middle in the absence of Lewandowski. If you’re going to add an extra midfielder, as Xavi did against Real Madrid, then you can make the case for Ansu not starting. However, in the latest match against Valencia Barca started in a 4-3-3 formation. Ansu on the left wing, and Ferran through the middle. I’m not one of those fans who believes Ferran should never play, but it was obvious early on that Ansu and Alejandro Balde weren’t coexisting well on the left side. Ansu likes to cut in and fill in more central spaces just like Balde does. Balde had a beautiful run in the first half that led to a near goal by Raphinha, and while it was a nice play, it showed how Balde occupied the space that Ansu likes to occupy. if Jordi Alba had played, it would’ve been more of the same.
Balde also isn’t the best at picking out forward runs, which Ansu tries a lot of. Ferran, on the other hand, is a player that naturally spreads himself more out wide. He’s more effective in those wide areas where can run in behind the defense and pepper in crosses or take on defenders at the goal line. If Balde wanted to cut in, which he does often, there’d be more space with Ferran there.
Ansu’s profile has always been more of a central finisher, to receive and fire on goal. He’s scored some wonderful first touch goals from crosses into the box. He hit the post against Valencia, and he almost created a goal from nothing against Real Madrid from a central position. He’s trying to score; that much is obvious. And it feels like the longer he goes without scoring, the more desperate he becomes, to the point that he’s jeopardizing attacking chances (just ask Lewandowski and Kessie). And against Valencia, he was subbed off after Ronald Araújo’s red card, not given a chance to play centrally.
Ansu is still very young, and still has plenty of potential. He needs to regain his form, because he still has the ability to be special in the future. Which is why they need to optimize his minutes, and the team’s results in turn, by playing him in the correct position.
Barça had a penalty against Valencia, which Ferran took despite Ansu’s pleas. It would’ve been an easy way to regain some confidence for him. Missed. Not that I don’t trust Ferran, but if Xavi regarded Ansu Fati as more of a goal scorer, which he is, maybe he’d be ahead of Ferran on the penalty list.