Ansu Fati became Spain’s youngest ever scorer on Sunday | Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
Since football restarted, Barcelona’s existence has roughly resembled Sideshow Bob continuously stepping on rake after rake, with their botched La Liga title defence followed by the most chastening Champions League exit in the club’s history (not easy), which was then followed by their greatest ever player trying to leave.
With an underwhelming squad, an unfancied managerial appointment in Ronald Koeman and a deeply unpopular chairman, Barça are club in real need of some good news.
Of course, Lionel Messi reluctantly reversing his decision to down tools once he realised that the club he loved had literally made it impossible for him to do so was a good start, but at present it seems to be little more than an uneasy détente, a temporary compromise before the Argentinian wizard leaves Barcelona in the lurch in 2021.
Could Fati help Messi achieve what he wants to at Barcelona? | Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
The best possible news, you would say, would be if Messi had something to trust in, perhaps a vital piece that would complement his increasingly DIY style. A speedy, direct and technically-adept forward steeped in the principles of the Barça DNA, who could play on the left of a front three and whose genuine threat in front of goal could reduce the burden on Leo to come up with something spectacular when the chips are down.
For those who watched Spain’s routine 4-0 victory over Ukraine, it may well have felt obvious that perhaps that man is already (or nearly) there. Stationed on the left of a front three, a 17-year-old on his first ever start for Spain was showing speed, directness and impeccable technique as he took experienced professionals to task in one of the great full debuts.
That 17-year-old was Ansu Fati, and to say he looked at home among grown men in senior international football was no exaggeration.
Fati’s first trick involved completely bamboozling a man 12 years his senior in Serhii Kryvtsov, charging at the Ukraine defence from the edge of the final third, shaping to cut inside and shoot, before changing direction at the very last minute with a dexterous chop, thinking that was rather too quick for Kryvtsov, who hauled down the La Masia product for an early penalty.
Fati had Ukraine’s defenders, for want of a better phrase, on absolute strings | Soccrates Images/Getty Images
The Spaniard, who three days before had become his country’s youngest player in 84 years against Germany, desperately wanted to come away with a goal, and at first it seemed that he was doomed to be frustrated, first beating two defenders before curling narrowly wide, before an audacious overhead kick went straight into Andriy Pyatov’s hands.
But Fati’s characteristic determination to force the ball into the net at any costs was always going to pay off, and when the wunderkind finally made a breakthrough, those who have been paying attention to his meteoric rise might have found themselves experiencing a sense of déjà vu.
A flurry of quick feet to create a good angle, and then an unstoppable curling shot which is laser-targeted towards the inside of the far post – it could have been Fati’s opener against Leganés in June when Barcelona were under the cosh, or his game-winning missile against Inter which made him the youngest goalscorer in the history of the Champions League.
Fati already has some Champions League pedigree | Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images
That such a finish seemed almost a bit on the nose at this point, that Fati even has a trademark finish in men’s senior football at an age where most players are cleaning boots (do young players still do that?) and playing Under-23s football (if they’re lucky), speaks volumes about his potential importance to Barcelona, but also suggests that we should have plenty of patience with his development.
On face value, you have a guy who was playing alongside Jesus Navas, Dani Olmo, Ferrán Torres and Gerard Moreno, and still managed to both complete the most dribbles and attempt the most shots – in other words, someone confident enough, if given the chances, to satisfy Barcelona’s immediate need for some aggression and purpose in the forward line, especially with Antoine Griezmann plodding around getting in Messi’s way up top.
Of course, just because Fati’s doing the same thing every time he attacks, twisting and turning and trying to get a shot away, it doesn’t mean it’s particularly easy to stop – the most notable thing about him is how quickly and cleanly he changes direction while dribbling, meaning that you can read him but you can’t necessarily stop him.
Greenwood and Fati are at very similar stages of their development | Haflidi Breidfjord/Getty Images
But at the highest level, Fati has much to learn, and placing too much trust in him to deliver for Barcelona would likely be a disaster. A good comparison is Mason Greenwood at Manchester United, whose incredible talent for creating shooting opportunities, and putting them away, is remarkably similar to Fati’s.
Greenwood theoretically looks like the answer in a United forward line that has more or less been misfiring since Fergie called it a day, but in open play he largely looks a passenger, and once opposition goalkeepers and defenders learn more about him, he will be ineffective against deep defences until he develops (as he undoubtedly will) a more rounded profile as a player.
Likewise, though Fati is pretty good at finding space inside the box (the 5’10” winger’s first goal for Barcelona was a delightful glancing header), he doesn’t at present look as if he could reach the goalscoring heights of a Mohamed Salah or Raheem Sterling, while as a crosser and secondary creative force he is fairly raw.
Fati needs to stay grounded as expectations increase for him | RAFAEL MARCHANTE/Getty Images
You therefore worry that Fati’s progress could give Barcelona an opportunity to be complacent in the transfer market – they should’ve pursued Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang much more aggressively while it was still possible to have done so, and should definitely have another look at Son Heung-min (which I suppose is easier said than done when you think about the prospect of dealing with Daniel Levy).
In this sense, Fati’s problem could be his greatest strength – that he is exactly what Barça need, but the pressure of delivering for them, especially with Luis Suarez going and no replacement currently forthcoming, is not what he needs.
But if handled with care, and treated with the status of a secret weapon rather than the first line of attack, the latest gem to have rolled off Barcelona’s production line could well be the brightest since Messi himself.