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Ansu Fati to Brighton: Roberto De Zerbi’s side being Barcelona winger's best option says it all about Seagulls’ progress

Ansu Fati has signed a loan deal with Brighton. Swapping Barcelona for the Seagulls makes sense for the Spain international. Adam Bate looks at the stylistic similarities and what bringing in a potential superstar says for the club's progress under Roberto De Zerbi...

Ansu Fati
Image: Spain international Ansu Fati has moved on loan from Barcelona to Brighton

There are many aspects to the Brighton success story. It is a triumph of club building, controlling the pace of change, mature and intelligent leadership. More recently, their recruitment in markets from South America to the Far East has been celebrated.

The loan signing of Ansu Fati is a little different. This is no gem unearthed, this is a player who had been widely tipped to become a world superstar from the age of 16 when he became Barcelona's youngest player for 80 years, their youngest-ever scorer.

His journey to Brighton is not one from obscurity but from La Masia, the most famed academy in the game. Almost from the moment that he made his stunning breakthrough in August 2019, excitement abounded. That hyperbole quickly became difficult to quell.

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Roberto De Zerbi says the club are 'very pleased' to have signed Ansu Fati on loan

"It is not normal," said then-Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde. "It is all a bit exaggerated. It is not normal that his first touch is a goal. It is not normal that his second is an assist and his third almost goes into the top corner. Everything will go back to normal."

Valverde spoke of having to deflate the expectations, of the need to protect the player. The words of Sergio Busquets at the time appear particularly prophetic now. "We have to support him because we know hard times will come," he pointed out. And come they did.

Fati's injury problems had begun even before he made the first team, a leg break threatening his progress in his early teens. The left knee would become a problem later. He has undergone four operations to repair it since first damaging it in November 2020.

The nadir came early last year when he left the field in tears. "We want to recover him mentally, give him love, because it is a difficult moment and we need him," said Xavi. "We want him never to be injured again. We will draw up a recovery plan."

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Fati joins Brighton on loan
Fati joins Brighton on loan

Brighton have completed the signing of Ansu Fati on a season-long loan from Barcelona

It worked in a sense. Fati returned to play a part in Barcelona's title win last season, involved in 36 of their matches. There were whispers that he was not quite the player he had hinted at becoming before the injuries. On the fringes, it explains why he is being loaned out.

But it does not explain why Brighton emerged as the preferred destination, apparently chosen over 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.

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Now one of the most tactically interesting sides in world football, Brighton's approach has been heralded by Pep Guardiola. Indeed, the ideas explored by De Zerbi are perhaps as much in tune with the beautiful game as Barcelona, the club long synonymous with it.

That is important for Fati. Speaking to Bojan last year, a player who himself had to live with the pressure of being labelled the next Lionel Messi and whose record as Barcelona's youngest scorer Fati broke, he outlined the challenge facing La Masia graduates.

It is awkward to find a suitable environment elsewhere.

"That is one of the problems," Bojan told Sky Sports.

"As a young player, the club teaches you to play in the first team of Barcelona not to live the life of a football player. For me, it is 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 the lucky ones but the challenge of taking that next step can be a difficult one, stylistically. "As soon as you leave Barcelona, there are only a few clubs that can have the same level, the same mentality. It is 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 the running stats are more important than what you do with the ball. It is another world. It is one of the main problems that the young guys at Barcelona have.

"They are not really prepared to play in other teams."

Fati is unlikely to find such a problem at Brighton. There are more similarities than Barcelona supporters might think. Barca had 64.8 per cent of possession in LaLiga last season. Brighton have had 62.7 per cent of the ball since De Zerbi arrived at the club.

There are unique aspects to the Italian's approach, those pauses in possession as Brighton reset. But Fati will find familiar principles around ball possession and winning it high that are unusual for a club that has never finished higher than sixth in England's top tier.

As a result, Fati's numbers at Barcelona could be more repeatable than one might ordinarily expect when leaving a title-winning team - certainly more so than when Bojan made the leap from Catalunya to the Potteries upon signing for Stoke City in 2014.

Fati ranked among the top 10 players in LaLiga for shots per 90 minutes last season, his strike rate also among the top 10, a shade behind Karim Benzema. He was second only to Vinicius Junior for frequency of touches inside the opposition box.

Ansu Fati's stats for Barcelona in the 2022/23 LaLiga season

There was a time when a player could only hope to replicate such numbers at the world's richest clubs. Brighton have changed that.

They have had 1177 touches in the opposition box since De Zerbi took over, far more than Liverpool and Manchester United and just 10 touches shy of Guardiola's magnificent Manchester City side.

Absurd as it might have seemed not so long ago, Brighton might just be the natural home for a Barcelona talent in need of minutes to recapture the magic that made him such a prospect. That speaks volumes for the work of De Zerbi and the club Brighton have become.

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