When the team sheets were released ahead of last month’s Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid, eyes were immediately drawn towards the home team’s frontline. The headline news was that Antoine Griezmann, who is still struggling to make an impact at the Camp Nou more than a year on from his transfer from Atletico Madrid, had been left out of the starting XI.
More notable, though, was the presence of two 17-year-olds in Ronald Koeman’s line-up. The Clasico is the biggest club game in the world and this edition was the most important match of Barcelona’s season so far. Many managers would have opted for experience, ultimately concluding that it would be too risky to field a pair of under-18s in such a fixture. Koeman chose the opposite path, asserting his authority as he attempts to win over the doubters that have questioned his managerial acumen at the highest level.
This was not just a power play, though. Koeman selected Ansu Fati and Pedri from the start of the Clasico because he believed in their ability to make an impact, even against the might of Real Madrid. Barcelona lost the game 3-1 and while Fati was lively, Pedri was ineffectual. Yet no one who has watched either player this season could argue that Koeman was wrong to have faith in them.
‘If you’re good enough, you’re old enough’ is an oft-used adage in professional soccer, but actions speak louder than words. It is a testament to Pedri and Fati’s prodigious talent that they have become regular first-teamers for one of the biggest clubs on the planet in 2020/21.
Fati, who turned 18 on the last day of October, was born in Guinea-Bissau in 2002. His father, who was also a soccer player, took the family to Spain when Ansu was six, settling in the town of Herrera near Seville. It was for Herrera that Fati took his first steps in the game, before moving to Sevilla just prior to his eighth birthday. After two years there, Barcelona whisked him away to their famed La Masia academy.
Fati only signed his first professional deal in the summer of 2019, and it has been a whirlwind ride for the teenager ever since. He has broken a whole series of records since he first came to public attention last year.
Fati was not quite the youngest debutant in Barcelona history when he made his bow in August 2019, but only Vicenc Martinez played for the club at an earlier age. He soon became the youngest player to score and assist in the same La Liga game, as well as the youngest Barcelona player to feature in a Champions League match. He is also the youngest player to score a brace in a La Liga fixture and is the youngest to have won a La Liga Player of the Month award.
Pedri, who turns 18 later this month, was born on the island of Tenerife in 2002. Having previously played for amateur club Juventud Laguna, he joined Las Palmas’ youth ranks at the relatively late age of 15, before signing his first professional deal a year later.
Las Palmas spent last season in the second division, which was a good thing for Pedri’s development; had the club been battling relegation in La Liga, he might not have been given so much game time. Pedri played 36 times in the league in total, and his performances were of sufficient quality to persuade Barcelona to sign him in the summer. There was initially talk that Pedri could be loaned out for the current campaign, so he has done incredibly well to immediately become part of the first-team picture in Catalonia.
Fati made a blistering start to 2020/21. Included in Koeman’s first-ever starting XI for a La Liga game as Barcelona head coach, he scored twice in a 4-0 victory over Villarreal. He is now sitting on four goals in seven league appearances, having been deployed both from the left flank and in a more central role. The news that he suffered a knee injury in Saturday’s 5-2 thrashing of Real Betis is a major blow to Barcelona.
Those numbers are impressive, but there is more to Fati’s game than just putting the ball in the back of the net. Like most wide players in the modern game, the 18-year-old loves to drift inside onto his stronger right foot. He is lightning quick and can use his pace to breeze past opposition defenders, but he is also mature beyond his years and is far from a headless chicken when running with the ball.
Indeed, Fati is a tricky dribbler who can use his footwork and ball manipulation to beat full-backs, as well as raw pace. All these qualities are impressive, but Koeman will be most pleased with his goal return so far this season. Many young players lack end product, but Fati is showing that he is not one of them.
Pedri is a different type of player. An attacking midfielder more than a wide forward, he has nevertheless been deployed on the flanks this term. Technically gifted with good close control, an appreciation of space and an eye for a pass, Pedri might become a central midfielder at the Camp Nou one day.
He may have struggled in the Clasico against Real Madrid, but he was excellent in the Champions League victory over Juventus and has shown numerous flashes of his quality in La Liga too. He scored his first La Liga goal in the 5-2 victory over Real Betis at the weekend.
As things stand, Barcelona is behind Real Madrid in the betting market for the La Liga title, with DraftKings Sportsbook offering +225 on Koeman’s side triumphing compared to +110 on Los Blancos retaining the trophy they have claimed last time out. Nevertheless, Barcelona has been far too short-terms in recent years, and the emergence of Fati and Pedri offers hope of a bright future at the Camp Nou.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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