Ansu Fati And Ilaix Moriba: The Future Of FC Barcelona
Written by Alan Feehely
El Sadar is the home of Osasuna and the birthplace of two of the brightest young stars in Spanish football. Not literally, of course. In fact, neither Ansu Fati nor Ilaix Moriba were even born in Spain. But both announced themselves to the world in Pamplona.
Fati, born in Guinea-Bissau on October 31st 2002, had his moment at the end of August 2019. He scored his first professional goal at 16 years and 304 days old during Barcelona’s 2-2 draw with Osasuna, becoming the youngest goalscorer in the history of the Catalan club and the third-youngest goalscorer in the history of LaLiga.
Moriba, born in Guinea on January 19th 2003, had his moment on the same pitch 18 months later, scoring his first goal for Barcelona in a 2-0 away victory at Osasuna after being assisted by Lionel Messi. Messi is one of only four other players, including Fati, to have scored for Barcelona at a younger age, alongside Bojan and Pedri.
Fati was injured at the time of Ilaix’s debut goal, but that won’t have dimmed his happiness for his friend. The pair are apparently like brothers off the pitch, able to draw upon similar backgrounds and situations. Both are the children of first-generation African immigrants in Spain and both have been labelled the hottest talents to have emerged from La Masia, Barcelona’s mythical academy, for some time.
They play different positions and have different stories, of course, but are both touted as having the potential to lead Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona into the new decade. The freak generation that produced the all-conquering side of 2008-2011 have slowly but surely departed, with only a few left. The hope at Camp Nou is that Messi, surrounded by young talent like Fati and Ilaix as well as the likes of Pedri and Frenkie de Jong, can lead Barcelona back to the elite of the elite, where they belong.
But potential and ability are two separate things. Both of these young men aren’t even 20 yet and are operating at the sharp end of the world’s most competitive and cut-throat sport. Fati, for instance, is currently undergoing injury hell, out of action since damaging his meniscus back in November. Ilaix has returned to Barcelona B so as to be gradually eased into the first-team set-up rather than thrown in at the deep end. Their development will need to be managed carefully. But do they have what it takes to fulfil their potential?
“It’s hard to predict, but they’ve long been earmarked as the brightest prospects of their generation in La Masia, evidenced by the fact Barcelona broke previous protocol to hand them big deals at 16,” Barcelona-based journalist Samuel Marsden told La Liga Lowdown. That policy was previously unheard-of for youth teamers, Marsden explained, something that has previously resulted in the departure of young talent in the past.
“On the pitch for the first team, they’ve shown they have what it takes to be important now and in the coming years, Ansu especially,” Marsden continued. “Funnily enough, there was more excitement about Ilaix, but a few things fell Ansu’s way with injuries last season. At the start of the campaign, he was still with the under-19s on pre-season in Russia, then into the B-team for some friendlies and then into the first team without even playing a competitive game for the B-team. By those standards, Ilaix’s progression has been a bit more of a slow burner, even if it’s still been quick. He spent last season with the under-19s with a bit part role in the B-team, so he also hasn’t even had a complete season with the B-team yet.”
“Both offer essential qualities that the team needs not only right now, but in the coming seasons,” renowned expert on all things Barcelona Kevin Williams told La Liga Lowdown. “They’re part of a group that will, if folks are sensible, save the club a lot of money in transfer fees. Both have weaknesses, essentially because they’re young. Both will learn how to manage defences that suss them out as well as how to manage the physical part of the game, Ilaix faster and more effectively than Fati, who tends to already want the foul like any proper forward. Ilaix is more complete already than Fati, and his La Masia upbringing is purer in his style as a consequence of having been with the club longer.”
“I believe [they have what it takes], as they both have the mentality to make it at the highest level and at the same time are clearly also good enough technically,” Barcelona blogger Navid Molaaghaei told La Liga Lowdown. “I’m really hoping for Ansu to come back well [from his injury], though. Signing Memphis Depay might make it difficult for him to play a lot, but the talent of that kid is just unquestionable.”
Fati’s father is Bori Fati, who left Guinea-Bissau for Portugal initially while his wife and children remained home. He eventually ended up in Marinaleda, a town about 100km from Seville renowned for its left-wing ideology and alternative lifestyle, meeting the town mayor Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo and, with his help, finding his feet. He then moved to nearby Herrera, where he was joined by his wife and children.
It was with Herrera that Fati took his first steps as a footballer, eventually earning a place within the Sevilla youth system before being taken to La Masia at 10. Ilaix, on the other hand, grew up in Barcelona to a Guinean mother and a Liberian father, beginning his career with Espanyol before being poached by Barcelona at seven.
“Ansu’s come into the team as a winger in theory but I think his best quality is his finishing, that ability to be in the right place at the right time and take his chances,” Marsden continued. “That’s why a lot of people have speculated about him possibly playing as a centre forward. He’s obviously versatile, and can play left, right, as well through the middle. He offers pace and the ability to beat a man, something that’s been missing at Barcelona since Neymar left and Ousmane Dembélé struggled with injury.
“It’s hard to know with Ilaix because he’s been asked to play so many different roles. Víctor Valdés didn’t actually use him that much during his brief spell with the under-19s and that was one of the reasons he eventually left, disagreements over how the team played and who played. Around that time Ilaix often played as a ten, with Louie Barry ahead of him, Konrad [de la Fuente] on one side and Nils [Mortimer] or [Jaume] Jardí on the other once Ansu was promoted. He then ended up as more of a number eight under Franc Artiga.
“My thing with Ilaix has always been that he switched off too often, but that could be because he’d outgrown that level. He’s capable of the sublime and would do some amazing things in the final third but would also go missing for large parts of the game. When he’s played with the first team he seems much more switched on. I don’t think you can tie him down to a position. At the moment, the perfect fit for him is one of the positions just in front of Sergio Busquets, but that will likely change depending on his development and Barcelona’s needs. Strength-wise, he has the size and physique that Koeman wants, but he also has that La Masia education and technique. He’s often compared to Busquets, but he’s much more attacking for me.”
“Fati is very much a Samuel Eto’o-type striker,” continued Williams. “Quick afoot and on the press, with a hard and flat shot that he can get off quickly and with minimal backlift. It’s probably wrong of me to say this, but I’m more excited about Ilaix in the first team, mostly because he’s exactly what the team needs right now. Witness how he worked the ball loose to facilitate Dembélé’s goal against Real Sociedad. Barcelona midfielders so often win the ball with guile, à la Busquets, just being in the right spot all the time, à la Pedri, or reading the game. Ilaix just rolled up and took the ball, an 18-year-old jacking a man. The value to the Barcelona press of having a player who can do that is immeasurable. Both have tremendous upsides, particularly Fati, who’s a remarkable success story not only in his own right but given that La Masia mainly create midfielders and, of late, centre-backs, and have been less successful with forwards.”
“I think Ansu’s most natural position is as a false nine,” continued Molaaghaei. “I dream of seeing him play there like he did in the academy. I think Ilaix is more of a box-to-box player. Ansu is technically supreme and capable of playing every position in attack, and is clearly smart for his age positionally. Ilaix might look like a complete player from the outside but what his coaches at La Masia praised him for the most was his positional play. He knows where to be, which is obviously crucial for a box-to-box player. His biggest weakness is his ego. If he’s not a regular in the next couple of years, he’s not going to stick around. There’s a reason he doesn’t want to raise his release clause in his new contract.”
Fati’s contract with Barcelona expires in the summer of 2022, as does Ilaix’s. Barcelona will look to tie them down with longer deals this summer to avoid them entering the final year of their contracts and potentially leaving on a free transfer. Not that it’s expected to be much of an issue. Koeman will be the coach next season, and the mood around the club has changed markedly over the course of the year. Joan Laporta’s return has brought an injection of impetus and enthusiasm that had been absent, with ambition in the transfer market set to be paired with a reliance on youth. Front and centre of this new iteration of Barcelona could very well be this talented pair, Ilaix dominating the midfield with Fati lethal in the final third, heroes for first-generation African immigrants in Spain and Europe.
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