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Ansu Fati and Carles Perez: Has Barcelona's Next Generation Arrived?

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportAugust 28, 2019

BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 25: Ansu Fati of FC Barcelona reacts during the Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Betis Balompie at Camp Nou on August 25, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Time waits for no man. During Barcelona's 5-2 victory over Real Betis at the Camp Nou on Sunday night, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez had to look on from the stands. Both were out injured. Both will turn 33 within the next year. There will come a time—not too far away—when Barca won't be able to call on their two iconic forwards. Already the club are looking at that future.

Also missing against Betis were two more of the attacking lineup that featured in the 4-3 aggregate defeat to Liverpool in last season's UEFA Champions League semi-final. Philippe Coutinho has now been farmed out on loan to Bayern Munich, while Ousmane Dembele, whose tap-in miss in the dying seconds of the first leg arguably cost Barcelona the tie, is injured.

The absences meant coach Ernesto Valverde played with a new-look attack. It included Rafinha, back again and looking lively after missing much of last season through injury; the 21-year-old Carles Perez; and Antoine Griezmann, who was making his Camp Nou debut in La Liga. The Frenchman didn't disappoint, gracing the game with two goals, an assist and a glittering goal celebration.

It was the cameo performance of Ansu Fati, however, that captured the imagination. Fati grew up playing with a rag ball on the streets of Bissau, the capital city of Guinea-Bissau in west Africa. At only 16 years and 298 days old, he became the youngest Barca debutant since 1941. The picture of him hugging Messi in the tunnel after the game went viral.

Messi's son plays with Fati's brother Miguel in the youth divisions of Barcelona's academy, which probably contributed to the level of affection, but the message still resonated. It was an anointment, a hinting at a possible passing of the torch. Fati has long been a prized asset within the ranks of Barcelona. He has the second-best contract of a player outside of the first team within the club. 

Albert Puig, who works as an assistant coach at New York City FC, managed to steal Fati from the clutches of Real Madrid after Fati played several friendly games for one of Los Blancos' supporters' clubs in Andalusia.

Puig worked as technical director of Barcelona's youth academy from 2010-2014. Fati was playing in Sevilla's youth academy in the south of Spain when Puig came calling.  

BARCELONA, SPAIN - AUGUST 25: Ansu Fati of FC Barcelona in action during the Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Betis Balompie at Camp Nou on August 25, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

"Our scout in the area told me about him," Puig tells B/R. "He was eight or nine years old. He was living in Herrera, a small town close to Seville. I went to Sevilla. Ansu already had [an offer from] Real Madrid in the bag. My job was first to convince Ansu, then to convince his parents that he should come to Barcelona's La Masia academy. After two or three visits to Ansu's home, I persuaded him to come. 

"I spoke to Ansu's dad about the project at Barcelona. I persuaded him to trust us with his two sons, who had to move 1,000 kilometres. [Ansu's older brother Brahim also joined La Masia.] It wasn't about money. It was about feeling. It was about the confidence Ansu's dad had in the club and all the people and coaches who work in La Masia and its residence, who are full of humanity. That for me was the principal reason Ansu's family decided he should go to Barcelona."

Fati stayed living in Herrera for one more year because he was so young. He had problems with Sevilla—the club suspended him for a year once they found out he had signed a contract with Barca.  

When he was 10 years old, he moved north to Catalonia to begin life at La Masia, although he was still younger than the average graduate.

"Typically boys from outside Catalonia wait until they are 13 or 14 before coming to the club to live in its residence," says Puig. "When you decide to bring a young player from outside Catalonia, it's because you've decided he's a great talent, different from the others. After that, it's hard work, patience, and with luck, he will make it to the first team."

Fati's dream has come true. He had never even played with Barcelona's reserve team—and had to get his parents to sign off on permission for him to play as it was a late-night kick-off—before making his first-team debut against Real Betis, in which he sparkled and narrowly missed scoring a goal during his quarter-hour shift. Puig points to his versatility as a hallmark.

"His quality is that he can play in all of the attacking positions," says Puig. "He can play at 9, 11, 7, 10. He's very versatile. It makes a difference. He's fast. He's got a great imagination. He's got this natural talent. Remember, his early childhood was as a kid growing up in Africa. He spent a lot of years playing [pick-up] football in the streets.

"It's very important—this kind of player who plays so much freely on the streets for hours and hours. It was the same with Messi as a kid, although Messi is obviously different in other aspects. Added to this his natural talent helps to make the player he has become. Afterwards, the job of Barcelona was to understand and nurture him, but to be careful never to [suppress] his natural talent." 

Damia, a former Barcelona player who is coaching Catalonia's under-18 team, has been monitoring Fati's development closely. He's enamoured with Fati's potential, but he urges caution. He runs a finger down through a list of Barcelona's 10 youngest debutants—which includes Fati, Bojan and Messi—and notes that most of their careers dead-ended after promising so much early on.

"Besides Messi on that list, most of them didn't play many games with Barcelona's first team," says Damia. "Even some of them really struggled to stay in professional football ranks for long. It's very difficult to say if Ansu Fati is going to be like Kylian Mbappe. It would be a mistake to say something like that.   

"Take a player like Marc Muniesa on that list. He was like Ansu Fati in that he hadn't even made an appearance with Barca B before jumping to the first team under Pep Guardiola. He's played in the English Premier League. He is still only 27, but Girona just released him from his contract, and he's playing in Qatar now.

"You have to be careful about the expectations you place on these young players. This year, is Ansu Fati going to be a professional player? I think so. Is he going to play some games with the first team? I think so. But if you ask me is Ansu Fati going to be in Barcelona's starting XI for 10 years, it's very hard to predict because no one can say." 

Puig also signed Perez, who scored Barcelona's third goal against Real Betis. Perez made the goal with a deft touch that pulled him free from two covering defenders into a scoring position.

He was top scorer during Barcelona's triumphant UEFA Youth League campaign in 2017-18, and Damia reckons he could be a useful asset for Valverde this season.

Carles Perez
Carles PerezSoccrates Images/Getty Images

"That game against Betis changed his future," says Damia. "He will get a lot of chances this season with Barcelona because of the position he plays. He's powerful. He can change direction. He's very good in one-on-ones. And Barcelona don't have many of these kinds of players. They have Dembele, and the other one is Carles Perez. Griezmann is not this kind of player. Messi is a different kind of player; he plays inside.

"Also, Carles Perez has been in Barcelona for a long time. He's good at 'combinations,' we say here in Catalonia—at passing at close quarters. He's able to stay in his position, creating spaces for other players. He's able to attack from that wide position. Dembele is a little bit more anarchic. Dembele is more talented and he occupies spaces differently, but depending on the games, Carles Perez will have opportunities."

Dembele is one of the club's conundrums. He got injured—his sixth injury since joining the club in the summer of 2017—in the season opener, a 1-0 defeat against Athletic Bilbao. He missed a medical the following morning, skipping to Rennes in France to meet his mother, according to the player's agent, or to Senegal, as has been reported elsewhere.

The absence resulted in a fine, Cadena Ser radio station reported. His lack of professionalism, which includes missed training sessions and late nights playing video games, has led to heavy criticism.

Ramiro Martin, Barcelona-based author of Messi: Un Genio en la Escuela del Futbol, argues some of it might part of an orchestrated campaign.

"His indiscretions have been greatly magnified," says Martin. "And one wonders why. Nothing is casual in the 'world of Barca.' You have to ask who is interested in elevating his indiscretions when we know that many players in Barca commit indiscretions and they're not leaked to the press. That said, I think there is something disconnecting him from his daily work to succeed in Barca. This season will be key." 

The fate of Neymar will also be critical for Dembele's prospects of securing a starting role in Barcelona's attack. The Brazilian is involved in a tug of war between Barca and Real Madrid.

No one knows where he will be playing next week when the Spanish and French transfer windows close. He may well remain at Paris Saint-Germain. If Barcelona secure his signature, it will mean Valverde's attack will be overstocked—if all his stars are fit—for the team's big games.

Perez and Ernesto Valverde
Perez and Ernesto ValverdeKAZUHIRO NOGI/Getty Images

Perez and Fati are further down the pecking order. Martin is sceptical about their immediate prospects. He believes that Valverde's inherent conservatism will count against them in a battle for a starting position against, for example, Dembele, as it seems Valverde's preferred starting trio would be Messi, Suarez and Griezmann—notwithstanding the addition of Neymar into the mix.

"Perez and Fati could be options if Ernesto Valverde was a coach who believes in youth," says Martin. "It is not the case. These two young men played against Real Betis because of the absence of players such as Messi, Dembele and Suarez. Valverde's recent history at FC Barcelona tells us that if there had not been these players injured, the two youth players would not even have been summoned.

"Valverde does not give room to young people. He believes in hierarchies and moves away from risky decisions regarding the 'cantera' (youth academy). Once the injured stars return, nothing of how Valverde has been conducted in the past indicates that Perez and Fati will get more chances to play in the first team."

                   

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