Where has it gone wrong for Ansu Fati?

Sport

Barcelona had such high hopes for Ansu Fati. At the height of their financial crisis, which still looms large to this day, they had to turn inwards to their greatest weapon, La Masía, their young academy. When its greatest ever graduate, Lionel Messi, was forced out because the club couldn’t pay him, the club put their faith in Ansu.

Then 18, the winger was trusted with Messi’s number 10 shirt. It felt like a calculated move in a couple of ways: to make a gesture to show that there was a contingency plan in place to follow the man who had become the face of the club over the previous 15 years, but also to signify how long the process of getting themselves back to former glories would be. Ansu wasn’t ready to become the main man at Barça then, let alone fill the boots of Messi. What it did prove, though, was that he was set to become the next star of the youth system and that could still be relied upon as heavily as it had been at the height of Barça’s dominance in the mid-2000s to the 2010s.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. Injuries have stunted his development in general, but against a backdrop of intermittent involvement as a key player, that made it doubly difficult. A tear of his meniscus kept him out for 10 months in 2020/21, and that was followed up by two serious hamstring issues. From then on, descriptions of his injuries have almost exclusively involved the word ‘prone’.

It is worth remembering Messi, who’s biggest strength during his peak years was arguably his availability, had problems with his fitness as a teenager. But Barcelona had also taken the decision to spend money they didn’t really have in an attempt to stay at the top, and that meant buying a new strike-force. The likes of Ferran Torres and Raphinha added tougher competition and, under Xavi, Ansu wasn’t getting much game time.

And so to last summer, when he was sent out on loan. By the age of 20, soon to be 21, it was clear he was starting to slip behind schedule. For most players, such a torrid injury record would be an allowance at that age, but this was the reality of being Barcelona’s number 10. Crucially, though, they haven’t given up on him. Brighton were the club who took him; they were carefully chosen, like they won a competition as the most compatible for the next stage of Ansu’s development.

It was proof that their reputation for nurturing talent to their potential had gone worldwide; and the fact Roberto De Zerbi’s philosophy shared so many of the hallmarks of Barcelona also hadn’t gone unnoticed. At face value, it appeared a perfect match. But away from the pressure and increasing toxicity of Catalunya, he’d need a good run in the team to build up his fitness, and then to deliver consistently.

Again, though, his aims are being met by frustrating roadblocks. There have been just 13 Premier League appearances and two goals, as many as he’s scored in just four Europa League games. Once again, anyone who watches Ansu cannot deny his talent, but he is in the clutches of more injuries; this time, a calf problem, which has kept him out for months. But throughout such a tough time, Brighton haven’t been consistent enough either, and there was a collective failure to show their best in an FA Cup defeat at Wolves in midweek. It was Ansu’s first start and he offered little more than one shot off target.

As harsh as it may appear, given injuries are by no means his fault, Ansu is running out of time. His performances when fit at Barcelona were not befitting of a man with his talent and expectation. Brighton was supposed to be his avenue for a restart, and it hasn’t happened. How long before the cutthroat nature of his parent club marks his progress as permanently stunted? All is not lost, but he needs to change his luck soon.

Author: Mark Hayes