Barcelona have been in a difficult place this season. On the pitch, their performances have been patchy, as they have struggled psychologically to get over last year's humiliating 4-0 defeat to Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg at Anfield—the latest in several capitulations in the knockout stages of the competition in recent years.
Off the pitch, the club have been mired in controversy and infighting. Every month, it seems, team captain Lionel Messi surfaces on social media to berate the club's hierarchy. Before the suspension of the league in March, owing to the coronavirus pandemic, Barca's fans had been waving handkerchiefs at the Camp Nou in protest at club president Josep Maria Bartomeu, who is dogged by a scandal involving social media company I3 Ventures, which had allegedly been smearing his enemies, including Messi and Gerard Pique.
The one shining light to emerge from the season so far has been the eruption of Ansu Fati.
He has broken several records since his La Liga debut as a 16-year-old in August. These include becoming the youngest scorer in the history of the UEFA Champions League when he fired in a goal from outside Inter Milan's box at the San Siro Stadium in December.
Fati's first La Liga goal for the club—which made him the youngest Barcelona player in history to score in the league—came within five minutes of appearing as a substitute against Osasuna at their El Sadar Stadium in Pamplona, a famously tight and inhospitable ground for visiting teams.
It was only Fati's second game for Barca after a brief cameo the week before against Real Betis in La Liga. Notably, it took Messi nine games before the 18-year-old scored in an official game for Barcelona in 2005. Fati leapt to nod in Barcelona's first goal in a 2-2 draw. The cross for the goal, which came from Carles Perez, wasn't travelling at speed, but Fati managed to power it home from distance.
"I was working with Onda Cero radio here in Pamplona for the game," says Inaki Lorda, a Spanish football journalist. "After the final whistle, I went down to see the players. His physique really impressed me.
"He was still only 16 years of age at this stage, but you could see how strong he was, even though he still has more to grow. He's not a frail young guy like, say, Riqui Puig. The header Ansu scored was evidence of this—the spring he made to get on the end of it in between two big central defenders was incredible. You could see he has something special."
Barcelona's then-coach Ernesto Valverde—who was labouring with an injury crisis to several of his attacking players, including Messi, Ousmane Dembele and Luis Suarez—started Fati against Valencia in the next round of league games. Fati lit up the Camp Nou with a virtuoso display, scoring within two minutes of kick-off.
Albert Puig—who manages Albirex Niigata in Japan as well as heading up APFC, a coaching methodology company—was the man responsible for bringing Fati to Barcelona in 2012 when Puig worked as director of La Masia, Barcelona's famous youth academy.
"I love this guy Ansu Fati," says Puig. "He's a very versatile footballer. He can play in all of the attacking positions—at 9, 11, 7, 10. He's also fast and he has a great imagination. It comes from playing street football where he grew up in Africa. If you travel to Africa, you'll understand what I'm talking about—this innate football intelligence.
"I lived in Africa for a year. It produces a certain kind of player. It's different with kids in the western world who live more comfortable lives and maybe understand the language of football, but more in an academic way.
"When Ansu was growing up, he got to spend so much of his time playing freely in [pick-up] games. It's the ideal way to create a player who can improvise. He's very smart. In Spanish, we say a player like Ansu is 'espabilado'—sharp as a tack. He sees instinctively things on the pitch other players don't pick up on because he spent so much of his childhood playing outdoors in Africa."
After a blistering start to the season, the Guinea-Bissau native's progress has stalled, however. After scoring a brace in a league game against Levante at the Camp Nou in early February, his chances under new head coach Quique Setien—who has favoured emergency signing 28-year-old Martin Braithwaite as an impact player—have largely dried up.
"Setien needs guarantees," says Lorda. "Ansu Fati is very exciting, but he's not a guarantee. Braithwaite is proven—he's a finished article. He played well at Leganes before joining Barcelona. He's an interesting signing. It made sense to get him. He's not elite—he's not an Antoine Griezmann or a Suarez or Messi—but he's a good footballer and he's the kind of player that fills out a squad well. He knew from day one that he's not a guaranteed starter.
"Braithwaite gives Setien a level of confidence. Setien has shown that he trusts, too, in veteran players like Arturo Vidal and Ivan Rakitic. I'm sure he'd love to give more chances to Ansu Fati and, say, Riqui Puig, but Barcelona at the moment is a very unsettled place, so he'd prefer to put his trust in the old guard."
Braithwaite's arrival and the imminent return from injury of the more senior Dembele, who also plays in Fati's position, has left Fati's career at a crossroads. There will also likely be further arrivals this summer. Already, for example, Barcelona paid a reported fee of €31 million in January for the Portuguese starlet Trincao, another wide player, who is set to join the squad next season from Braga.
Last week, Diario Sport reported that Borussia Dortmund are interested in Fati for next season as a possible replacement for Jadon Sancho (if, as suspected, he's sold to an English Premier League club). Fati's profile fits the Bundesliga club—fast and a pure wide player—which is also renowned for developing young talent.
The possible return of Neymar Jr. to the Camp Nou or the signing of Lautaro Martinez—who has long been linked with a move from Inter Milan as a long-term replacement for Suarez—adds to the uncertainty around Fati's prospects in the Catalan city next season.
"There are so many factors that will affect Ansu Fati's position on Barcelona's squad next season," says Juan Bautista, a journalist with Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia. "If Neymar arrives or not. If the club signs Lautaro. Does Suarez have one more good year? It will be difficult for Ansu to get minutes. It would be easier for him if, for example, Dembele left.
"There are many variables at play. The club also needs to find a solution for Philippe Coutinho, who will be returning from a loan spell. Because of the coronavirus and a deflated transfer market, it will be difficult to sell players if Barca insist on not selling players at cut-price rates.
"To loan out Ansu is a logical solution when you've got players like Dembele and Coutinho who cost so much money. You either sell them cheaply or else they'll have to stay. Nobody is going to pay over €100 million for a player now, especially for a player who is as injury-prone as Dembele or as big a failure as Coutinho was at the Camp Nou. Only an English Premier League team could possibly afford the sums of money required."
Barcelona will be anxious not to let Fati's development run aground. He's already become their 10th-most valuable player, according to Transfermarkt, a German football analysis website. It's vital that he gets the oxygen of game time to continue his progress, but he'll have to compete with several heavyweights for precious minutes next season.
"If Ansu stays, the club will have to convince him he will be a useful player on the squad," says Bautista. "What can't happen is that he spends a year without playing or only playing a tiny bit. At his age, he needs to develop.
"In Barcelona, he's often compared with Messi, but there is only one Messi. Even Messi in the summer when he first made Barca's first-team squad in 2005, there were a lot of negotiations afoot. I remember, for example, Espanyol were interested in getting Messi on loan.
"Then Messi played for Barca in the Joan Gamper Trophy [a pre-season tournament] against Juventus. He wowed their coach, Fabio Capello, who asked Barca's coach, Frank Rijkaard, if he could take him on loan. It opened Barcelona's eyes and they realised: 'We have to keep this guy.'
"Maybe something similar will have to happen with Ansu. He'll have to break down the wall and say, 'I'm very good and I want to play more. Either you get rid of me or you find a solution for me.' Let's see."
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz