Brighton’s success story has many facets. It is a triumph of club building, control of the pace of change, mature and intelligent leadership. Recently, their recruitment has been celebrated in markets from South America to the Far East.
Ansu Fati’s loan signing is a little different. This is no undiscovered gem, this is a player who was often tipped to become a global superstar from the age of 16 when he became Barcelona’s youngest player to 80, their youngest ever goalscorer.
His journey to Brighton does not come from the unknown, but from La Masia, the most famous academy in the game. Almost from the moment it made its stunning breakthrough in August 2019, the excitement was rife. This hyperbole quickly became difficult to suppress.
“It’s not normal,” said Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde at the time. “It’s all a bit exaggerated. It’s not normal that his first touch is a goal. It’s not normal that his second is an assist and the third almost goes into the top corner. Everything will be back to normal.”
Valverde talked about having to lower expectations, about the need to protect the player. Sergio Busquets’ words at the time seem particularly prophetic now. “We have to support him because we know that difficult times will come,” he emphasized. And they came.
Fati’s injury problems began before he even broke into the first team, a broken leg threatening his progression in his early teens. The left knee would later become a problem. Since the first damage in November 2020, he has undergone four surgeries to repair it.
The worst situation came at the beginning of last year, when he left the field in tears. “We want to recover him mentally, give him love because it’s a difficult moment and we need him,” Xavi said. “We want him to never get hurt again. We’ll work out a recovery plan.”
In a sense it worked. Fati returned to play a part in Barcelona’s title win last season, appearing in 36 of their games. There were rumors that he wasn’t quite the player he was supposed to be before the injuries. On a side note, this explains why it is on loan.
But that doesn’t explain why Brighton emerged as the preferred destination, apparently chosen ahead of Tottenham and Sevilla among others. It is a testament to what this club on the south coast of England has become, a team transformed under Roberto De Zerbi.
Now one of the most tactically interesting sides in world football, Brighton’s approach has been heralded by Pep Guardiola. The ideas explored by De Zerbi are truly in tune with the beautiful game as much as Barcelona, the club that has long been synonymous with it.
This is important to Fati. In an interview last year, Bojan, a player who himself had to live with the pressure of being labeled the next Lionel Messi and whose record as Barcelona’s youngest goalscorer Fati surpassed, outlined the challenge facing La Masia graduates.
Finding a suitable environment elsewhere is embarrassing.
“That’s one of the problems,” Bojan said Sky Sports.
“As a young player, the club teaches you to play in the first team of Barcelona, so that you don’t live the life of a footballer. For me, it’s the best academy in the world. I believe in that mentality, that philosophy. But let’s be honest, how many players play in the first team?”
Fati and Bojan were lucky, but the challenge of taking the next step can be stylistically difficult. “As soon as you leave Barcelona, there are only a few clubs that can have the same level, the same mentality. It’s completely different,” he explained.
“These players are not ready to play in teams that don’t have the ball, teams that have to fight, teams where running stats are more important than what you do with the ball. It’s a different world. It’s one of the main problems they have young guys in Barcelona.
“They’re not really ready to play in other teams.”
Fati is unlikely to find such a problem in Brighton. There are more similarities than Barcelona fans might think. Barca had 64.8 percent of possession in La Liga last season. Since De Zerbi’s arrival at the club, Brighton have had 62.7 percent of the ball.
There are unique aspects to the Italian approach, those pauses in possession when Brighton reset. But Fati will find familiar principles around possession and winning the ball that are unusual for a club that has never finished higher than sixth in England’s top flight.
As a result, Fatih’s numbers at Barcelona could be more repeatable than one might normally expect from a title-winning side – certainly more so than when Bojan made the jump from Catalunya to the Potteries after signing for Stoke City in 2014.
Fati ranked among the top 10 players in LaLiga in shots per 90 minutes last season, his strike rate also among the top 10, a shade behind Karim Benzema. He was second behind Vinicius Junior in the frequency of touches in the opponent’s penalty area.
There was a time when a player could only hope to repeat such numbers at the richest clubs in the world. Brighton changed that.
Since De Zerbi’s arrival, they have had 1,177 opposition touches, far more than Liverpool and Manchester United, and just 10 touches short of Guardiola’s magnificent Manchester City side.
As absurd as it may have seemed not so long ago, Brighton could be a natural home for the Barcelona talent who needs minutes to recapture the magic that made him such a prospect. That speaks volumes for the work of De Zerbi and the Brighton club they have become.
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