Lionel Messi’s number 10 shirt was still warm when Barcelona, reeling from the shock departure of their greatest ever player, handed it to Ansu Fati. The symbolism was clear. Having suffered the indignity of Messi leaving, the Catalans were eager to highlight how the future remains bright. There is no brighter teenage talent at the Camp Nou than Ansu.
The pressure on the 18-year-old to fill the void left behind by Messi could barely be any greater. Back in the Barca squad for the first time since last November when he suffered a serious injury, Ansu must give his team the attacking spark they have desperately lacked over the first two months of the season.
Without Messi to dictate things, Ronald Koeman’s side have been lifeless of late. They were fortunate to snatch a point at home to Granada last weekend and failed to find a way through against Cadiz on Thursday night. Memphis Depay looks the part as a Barcelona player, but the Dutch forward can’t be expected to do it all on his own.
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This is where Barca hope Ansu will change the dynamic of their attacking play. With the teenager deployed on the left wing, where he is most effective, Koeman will surely use Memphis through the middle as a centre forward with the freedom to drift. This should give Barcelona better balance.
Most crucially, a fully fit Ansu will give Barca some vertical threat. They have struggled to get in behind in almost every match they have played this season and so Ansu’s pace and direct running could be an antidote to this. Koeman doesn’t just need the teenager for his inherent goal threat and creativity, but to stretch the pitch to open up space for others.
Ansu has scored 13 goals and registered five assists in just 41 appearances for Barcelona, making him the club’s most dependable attacking threat. Memphis is capable of brilliance, but he can be inconsistent. Martin Braithwaite is useful as a facilitator, but doesn’t offer much cutting edge - plus, he’s currently injured. Meanwhile, Luuk de Jong is still struggling to justify his deadline day transfer to the Camp Nou.
Barcelona fans are entitled to be excited about the return of Ansu. Not since Messi himself cane though has the Catalan club produced such an accomplished attacking talent. Most young players are incomplete in their qualities, but Ansu has everything - he can dribble, pass, shoot and most impressively, almost appears to know what to do and when to do it. His decision-making is always sharp.
But it is unfair for Barca to demand Ansu turn around their season almost single-handedly. They must be careful not to crush the 18-year-old by heaping too much responsibility on his young shoulders. It is more important that Barcelona look after the long-term development of their best homegrown talent in a generation.
Indeed, it would be better for Barcelona to suffer a dismal 2021/22 campaign while safeguarding the future of their best young players, of which Ansu certainly is one, than run those young players into the ground in the name of short-term salvation. Now is the time for level heads.
Desperation could see Koeman pick Ansu from the start for Sunday’s La Liga fixture at home to Levante. Anything less than a victory might push Barcelona into making a managerial change with Koeman already low on support. The Dutchman’s job could depend on Ansu hitting the ground running.
Anointed Messi’s successor through the symbolism of being handed his former mentor’s shirt, Ansu has the potential to alter the landscape for Barcelona. A lesser player would crumble under the pressure, but the Catalan club are counting on Ansu handling all they are about to ask of him.
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