Ansu Fati In Brighton Should Be Lots Of Fun
12:34 PM EDT on September 3, 2023
Ansu Fati left FC Barcelona on Thursday night, joining Brighton on a one-year loan. He departed the defending champions of La Liga for a modestly sized English club of no great renown that last season finished in the top six for the first time in the existence of the modern Premier League. This is great news.
It's been a rough few years for Fati, the 20-year-old forward and former La Masia jewel. He debuted with Barça's first team back in 2019, about as well as anybody could ever hope to, setting numerous youngest-player-ever records and representing a shining bridge from the fading Lionel Messi era to the club's bright future. The rest is horrible history: He screwed up the meniscus in his left knee in a November 2020 match against Real Betis, had surgery, had post-surgical problems, had more surgeries, missed nine months of training, came back, hurt his hamstring, refused more surgery, and missed three more months.
By the time Fati returned to stable health, he'd lost all but small chunks of two seasons, as well as two seasons' worth of opportunity to grow and develop. Somewhere in there, amid all the medical history, the club bestowed the vacated No. 10 shirt on Fati—along with all the pressure of taking up implied direct continuity with Messi and Ronaldinho. Also, Barcelona went existentially broke, which is how that shirt became available in the first place.
Fati avoided injury for the entirety of the 2022-23 season, answering at least the question of whether he could do so. In most other respects, the campaign went pretty poorly for him. He never earned manager Xavi's trust, rarely starting, often coming on for little more than (alternately tentative and overaggressive) cameos, and showing precious few signs of the explosiveness and dynamism that had characterized his electrifying ascent before the injuries. He still managed 10 goals, second-most on the team, and four assists. Transfer rumors dogged him all season, fueled by the club's own mouthpieces in the Spanish media, which goes back to the subject of Barça being broke.
The talk reached a feverish peak in the spring, when the club was still trying to sell the ludicrous idea that it could bring Messi back on a free transfer; if club president Joan Laporta could have shot Fati with a tranq dart on July 1 and shipped him to FC Kyzylzhar of the Kazakhstan Premier League for €40 million, that's where he'd be today. But Laporta couldn't do that, nor could he and super-agent Jorge Mendes pull off a cockamamie scheme to ship Fati to Wolverhampton, which might have been worse. Fati steadily rejected any and all suggestions he might leave, insisting that all he wanted was to earn Xavi's trust and succeed at the club he joined as a 10-year-old.
Fati finished last season on a relatively high note, with three goals over Barça's last two matches and then a terrific run with Spain's national team as it claimed the Nations League title. He followed it up with excellent play in this summer's preseason games, including a stunning golazo against AC Milan that recalled the very best of his pre-injury form. But it turned out not to be enough.
The emergence of 16-year-old Lamine Yamal, a genuine phenom who much more closely fits the squad's need for 1-v-1 dribblers on the wing, in combination with Xavi's conservative preference for filling one of his forward spots with a midfielder, meant Fati could not realistically hope to be more than an impact substitute this season, once again limiting his opportunities at a point in his career in which he has an urgent need for lots of steady playing time. When he wasn't the first attacker off the bench on Aug. 27 against Villarreal, in the team's last match before the summer transfer deadline—and the forward who went in ahead of him, Ferran Torres, promptly scored a goal—even I, watching at home, knew that had to be it. The following morning brought reports that Fati, for the first time ever, would listen to transfer and loan offers.
What developed thereafter never quite qualified as a sweepstakes; there were plenty of (probably Mendes- and/or Barça-created) rumors to drive up interest and price in Fati, but none of those materialized into real offers. For a short period on Aug. 30, reports had Tottenham Hotspur having all but sealed a loan—the Twitter cycle had progressed all the way to the photoshops-of-Fati-in-a-Tottenham-shirt stage—before Brighton pounced, reportedly winning Fati over with a series of excited phone calls from manager Roberto De Zerbi. It's hard to imagine a better turn of events, and not only because Tottenham sucks.
De Zerbi, something of a phenom himself in the year he's been Brighton's boss, has his squad playing some of the most thrilling soccer in Europe, a high-pressing, possession-heavy style in some superficial respects similar to Manchester City's or Barcelona's, but with more daring, directness, and counterpunching flair than either of those clubs, and infinitely more genuine goal-scoring intent than Xavi's dreary Barça. The Seagulls have cool players, try lots of cool shit, score lots of goals, and win points. When they're cooking, as they were in thrashing Champions League-bound Newcastle 3-1 on Saturday, it feels as though no more than 30 seconds ever go by without a Brighton attacker receiving the ball on a quick half-turn and roaring downhill at a bunch of backpedaling defenders. They're a gas.
Reports on the deal have Brighton agreeing to cover something around 80 percent of Fati's (pre-broke-Barça-scaled) salary. If that's true, it very likely makes his the highest salary Brighton will pay any player this season. As someone who very much would love to see Fati restored to something like the path he was on in 2019, I am taking Brighton having agreed to this—on a one-year loan with no purchase option—as an index of De Zerbi's belief in Fati's abilities, which for all the turmoil of the past three years remain incredibly promising. A lot of playing time and the opportunity to feature heavily in a team's attack would do Fati good anywhere—even Tottenham!—but Brighton, a well-run club of modest size that plays incandescently fun soccer, without all of Barcelona's desperation and chesty bullshit about being the Crucible of Greatness or whatever, seems nearly ideal.
There's some uncertainty about exactly how De Zerbi will use Fati, and not only because his nominal position, left wing, is the same as that of Kaoru Mitoma, Brighton's most dynamic attacker and an indispensable part of the Seagulls. With his brilliance for making runs into scoring position, Fati has always seemed at least as likely to mature into a true striker as to remain out on the wing, all the more so since his return from injury. Over the past year he's been at his best deployed in a more central second-striker role, roaming between the lines in pursuit of the ball and creating danger out of give-and-go combinations around the box. At Brighton, that overlaps with the role of Paraguayan wonderteen Julio Enciso, who will miss months with a knee injury; it makes sense if De Zerbi sees Fati occupying that role in Enciso's absence.
These concerns are slightly beside the point. The uncertainty Fati faced days ago has been transformed into intriguing possibility with genuine enthusiasm by one of Europe's brightest and most optimistic managerial minds.
"First of all," De Zerbi told reporters on Saturday, "I want him to enjoy playing. ... We want to win for sure, but first of all he has to think to enjoy and find the enjoyment of playing."
There's air and room to breathe it, for the first time in what feels like forever. Ansu Fati is at a club that wants him, one that can afford to value him for what he is right now rather than for the Financial Fair Play benefits of abandoning him by the side of the road. Not a bloated club being jerked around by its own debts and mythologies, but a good and fun one, free of all that shit, dreaming big and punching upward. Maybe he'll never have to go back.