After bagging two goals and an assist in his first three La Liga appearances, Ansu Fati was the latest La Masia graduate to earn the wunderkind label. Scintillating performances showcasing his individual ability and high footballing IQ put him on everyone’s radar.
Since that incredible start at the age of 16, minutes have been tougher to come by. Forcing the likes of Luís Suárez, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé out of the lineup was always a difficult task. With injuries to Suárez and Dembélé, the minutes have returned as the teenager has lined up on the left and right-wings for Barcelona.
In this scout report, we’ll examine Fati’s top technical and tactical qualities. With the latter point, a tactical analysis of who he fits into Quique Setién’s system, as well as how he’s utilised, will give us a better understanding of the qualities he brings to the table. Those two sections will help us see if Fati has developed over the course of the season or if his hot start was a flash in the pan as opponents understood how to defend against him.
Among La Liga forwards and attacking midfielders with more than 500 minutes played, Fati ranks ninth in dribbles per 90. Though his success rate is middle of the pack, the high usage and adaptation to the league’s speed of play are surely the top reasons for his unspectacular wins rate.
Though the season data points to an average dribbler, the eye test reveals much more. When he’s successful, Fati’s quickness and manipulation of the ball standout as potentially elite qualities. He’s very much a right-footed player, making it clear to see that his dribbling ability and Barcelona’s tactics make him a perfect match on the left-wing, at least from a technical perspective. From a physical standpoint, his pace is relatively average for the position, meaning he’s not the kind of player who will excel in the right-wing, turning the corner and delivering from wide. Quickness and body control are the top physical attributes, allowing him to deceive opponents in tight spaces and complete his next action without engaging in a foot-race.
His range of passing is still a bit of a mystery. While he can send a cross or simple pass into the box with his left foot, his tendency to cut inside and combine with short passes or look for the shot, much like Arjen Robben during his prime years at Bayern Munich. Within Barcelona’s tactical system, this is the preferred attacking approach from the left-forward.
Dribbling and combination play in tight spaces are the standout technical qualities. He’s an active player, always looking to break into the half-space and get his side to goal. While he’s played on both wings this season, starting from the left as an inverted winger is his preferred approach. Since Barcelona rarely send crosses, Fati, the academy graduate, has the skill set that fits the current tactics.
In the La Liga home match against Levante, Fati put his dribbling ability to work. Receiving the ball in the left-wing, the coverless defender played off to delay the impending duel. Though Fati would like to get deep into the half-space to initiate the attack on goal, sound defensive work slowed his progress. Rather than putting a foot on the ball and recycling the attack, the forward opted to progress towards the half-space while allowing his defender to maintain his distance.
As they near the box, the cover defender hustles into position to deny space behind the first defender, as well as occupy the half-space. As the second defender runs beyond his teammate, Fati recognized the opportunity to make his move, cutting inside of his defender. His cut inside and Lionel Messi’s run into the central channel leave them in the perfect position to showcase their combination play.
With three defenders in his immediate vicinity and a fourth covering the cluster, Fati passes to Messi, who now has just one defender between him and the goal. Though Messi chooses to shoot, playing Fati’s run behind the defence was the better option. Credit goes to the Spanish youth international for utilising his dribbling ability to set up a central combination.
Ranking fourth among La Liga’s forwards and wide midfielders with 4.17 progressive runs per 90 minutes and second with his touches in the box per 90 (6.63), the youngster is a very active player. His youthful exuberance and high tactical IQ keep him on the move throughout the match.
Playing for Barcelona certainly helps inflate his touches in the box, so I won’t dwell on that any longer, but his progressive runs are strongly indicative of his ability to read play and move off of his teammates. With a player like Messi in the lineup, there’s often a gap for the wide forwards to run into, especially with Suárez out of the lineup. As Messi moves centrally between the lines, you’ll often see a centre-back step forward to mark him. As the defender steps forward, a gap emerges, which is exactly what Fati patiently awaits as his teammates combine in the midfield.
In this example from the match at Valencia, Messi has dropped into the midfield, dragging a single centre-back with him into the midfield. With the emergence of open space in the right half-space, Fati makes a darting run into the vacated space. Much like this sequence, he frequently plays off his defender’s shoulder, getting him by the opponent before they have a chance to pick up his run. Arthur is facing forward with time to play the run, exactly the cue Fati was looking for. The pass never arrived, but the run was excellent, displaying the 17-year-old’s intelligence and willingness to run.
In the example above, Fati was playing on the right-wing. He’s typically an inverted left-winger, cutting inside to his preferred right foot. The radar above gives an idea of the stark difference in production between his appearances on the wings.
When Fati plays on his favoured left-wing, he’s a far more active dribbler, cutting inside and producing moments of chaos for the defence. He’s also far more likely to take shots, hit the target and produce an end product. In fact, the only areas on the radar improved by a right-sided starting point are his success percentages.
While he’s much more likely to win his dribbles and offensive duels on the right-wing, he attempts far fewer. Since he’s very reliant upon his right foot, the natural actions on the right-wing are progression with the dribble on the wing and a cross. Neither of these actions fit well within Barcelona’s attacking tactics. With the exception of Suárez, none of the forwards offer much of a threat from crosses. Barcelona’s philosophy and the talent on the squad necessitate that they cut inside to create shooting opportunities from the central channel and half-spaces, which is certainly ingrained in Fati, a Masia product.
From a playmaking perspective, Fati often lacks dynamism on the right side of the pitch. Unwilling to show the defender the ball, he generally refrains from the dribble, trying to find his way inside with clever off the ball movements. Additionally, when Barcelona attack the goal, the youngster often lacks confidence and makes poor technical decisions coming in from the right.
In the match against Granada, a cross came in from the left half-space, an area Barcelona often target as a launch point to send deliveries to the goalmouth. A sumptuous pass is flashed across the goal with nothing but the net in front of Fati. Rather than using a simple left-footed finish, he sets up to strike with his right foot. The approach is all wrong as the left leg disrupts the timing of the shot. Rather than hitting the net, the shot only produces a gentle breeze. Switch the field around so that the pass comes Fati’s right side and this is an easy goal.
His shooting map gives credence to the contrast in production from one wing to the other. Though he averages 2.98 shots per 90 when playing as a left-forward, his shots dwindle to a paltry 1.67 from the right, a 44% decline. He clearly has a favourite shooting location. You can see the cluster on the left, just above the six-yard box, ranging from the 12 to 22 yards. The right side of the map is nearly void of shots.
No one can deny Fati’s dynamism, but it’s clear he’s much more influential as a left forward than as the right-sided attacker. Striping him of the inside cut from the left places a handicap on his production.
Has he progressed this season?
Pitting his 2019 stats against the current calendar year, there is both evidence of growth, as well as signals that Setién is using him differently than Valverde. In part, we are seeing Fati move to the right-wing more frequently. As discussed in the previous section, that accounts for the decline in his dribbles, duels, shots and progressive runs.
The significant improvements in his success percentages are highly encouraging, but that does come with a decline in usage. As the season progresses, keep an eye on Fati’s positioning to determine his level of involvement. If he moves back to the left, which is complicated by the presence of Griezmann, he should see an increase in usage.
When Fati has played on the left-wing in the second half of the season, the resulting statistics offer concrete proof of development. The only categories that saw declines are progressive runs per 90 and touches in the box per 90. Those stats are highly tied to the team’s attacking tactics and production, so some variation is expected in those categories given the coaching change and inconsistency from the squad.
Some of Fati’s biggest improvements have come in his success percentages. In the first half of the season, he won only 44% of his 1v1s. That stat has skyrocketed to 57% in 2020 while playing left-forward, a 23% improvement. Success in duels has improved from 39% to 47%.
The statistic that has suffered most is the percentage of shots he’s getting on target. That number has dropped from 40% to just 29%. In part, this is due to the difference in Barcelona’s tactics from Valverde to Setién. With the return of Barcelona’s possession dominant approach, they’re seeing more low blocks, complicating their shot placement. The youngster is no different, struggling to find shooting lanes and hurrying his approach and strike.
Despite his recent run of poor form in front of goal, Fati is still one of the most productive young players in La Liga. The plot above lists all the forwards and wide attacking midfielders who are 23 or younger and have accumulated at least 500 minutes of playing time this season. Though some players have missed significant time due to injury, such as Gonçalo Guedes, the plot gives an idea of the young players who are either providing or receiving the most significant opportunities to goal.
The elites in the plot are in the upper right-hand quadrant. The red lines indicate the average production from La Liga’s forwards and attacking midfielder, leaving only Fati and Mikel Oyarzabal above average in both xG and xA per 90 minutes, though Vinícius Júnior is nearly there too. As the youngest player in the data set, Fati holds arguably the most impressive production numbers in this set.
Fati is an incredibly exciting player, one that the Barcelona fanbase will surely want to remain with the side. This analysis has shown that he has the potential to take on a much larger role with the club, especially as Messi ages, Suárez leaves and the fates of Dembélé and Griezmann are settled.
Transfer rumours have linked him to Borussia Dortmund, replacing Jadon Sancho. Reports also indicate that a passport issue was the only thing keeping him from a move to West Ham last summer. If Neymar does return to the Camp Nou next season, a spot in the starting XI would be out of the teenager’s grasp, even if Suárez departs. Allowing Fati to leave would be a rash decision, surely one that wouldn’t sit well with the fans since he’s a Masia grad.
If Barcelona do hang on to him, finding ways to insert him in the starting XI, preferably on the left-wing, he has elite potential. Moving on from Messi to Fati would ease the Catalan side’s transition and ensure the philosophy of Johan Cruyff continues to flourish in Barcelona.