I’ll never forget the day Ansu Fati made his debut for Barcelona.
16 years old! Are you kidding me?
Who is this baby-faced prodigy?
What was I doing at that age?
As a youth coach working with 18-year-olds part of me doesn’t want to tell them about the next teenager taking over La Liga. This isn’t normal, and you shouldn’t be comparing yourself to it.
But there Ansu was. So electric and confident, playing as if he had nothing to lose, because the truth is he didn’t.
When you come out of La Masia, you can play for Barcelona’s first team, and at least feel comfortable you understand the philosophy and expectations for keeping, and passing the ball.
Once you get your chance though, it may be your last.
In order to stick around the first team, you need to show you have something special that can make the difference on the field in any given game.
Lionel Messi had it. He was 17 years and three months old when he made his Barcelona debut. He impressed from the beginning, but we forget that it took a bit of time for him to prove he was an undisputed starter.
We also should remember that some players, in fact most players, take longer to develop. Even the ones who go on to become the best in the world at their position.
Xavi was around for a long time before people recognized him as one of the best midfielders of all time.
Iniesta was very young when he made his Barca debut, but it also took a while for people to give the legend his flowers.
Since Ansu, Barcelona have been a conveyor belt of young talent.
And the age of these professionals keeps getting younger.
It’s exciting to witness, and as a fan, you find yourself rooting for their story. We’re guilty of hyping them to a degree that may not even be deserved, or helpful for the player.
I’ll always be an Ansu Fati fan now.
I’m invested in his journey, and I feel like I’m living vicariously through him.
I felt devastated each time he had an injury setback, and slighted that Xavi never gave him a proper chance to prove himself in games. I’ve been aching for a proper comeback story.
But maybe as fans, and members of the media, we need to check our romanticism every once in a while, and ask ourselves with clear eyes, if we are putting too much pressure on these teenagers, and not giving them the space they need to make mistakes, learn, and develop.
In the long run, it will be interesting to see what happens to Ansu Fati, Pedri, Gavi, and now Lamine Yamal.
There’s only one Messi. An ironman of a player who never gets injured, and has been performing at a superstar level every year of his long career. It’s a marvel to see him continue to produce magic at the age of 36 with Inter Miami and the Argentinian national team.
Let’s not forget about Barcelona players like Bojan Krkic and Riqui Puig who fell from grace quickly.
Maybe Riqui did something wise by heading to the LA Galaxy for a few years, and will surprise us all with a successful return to Europe as a more mature and professionally prepared player.
Right now, all eyes are on Yamal.
He’s been gossiped about for a few years as the next best thing. And now, under Xavi, he was given the chance of a lifetime to stake his claim in this new Barcelona team, and he has wildly exceeded expectations early on. But remember, it’s still very early on.
At the same time, Pedri is out with yet another significant injury. He’s been suffering from these recurring injuries ever since being run into the ground in his debut season for Barcelona, where he played almost every minute of every game for club, and eventually country too.
Time will tell whether this injury has significant consequences for Barca’s season, because the team never looks at its best without the young Canarian.
Gavi was next up. He’s as industrious as ever, but he’s also been pigeon-holed as a pseudo winger in order to compensate for the lack of true wing talent on the team. So far, the results of this tactical move by Xavi have been dubious.
But for all of Gavi’s strengths, we’ve overlooked his weaknesses.
Perhaps with more time at a lower level, he could have worked on and improved his profile as a true midfielder. In the long run, Barca will need him to improve his playmaking ability in order to prove his staying power at the position.
And so we return to Yamal.
Barely 16 years old, charming the world with his big smile covered in braces, scoring goals, and getting assists for Barcelona and Spain.
To me, he can’t be rotated at the moment, because he has been Barcelona’s best forward. On merit, he deserves to keep playing.
Hopefully though, this ignites a fire under the feet of Raphinha, Ferran Torres, and Joao Felix.
Lamine still has a lot to learn, and he needs time to do it. It wouldn’t benefit him, or Barcelona in the long run, to play every game, but he will if he continues to be the best player on the field.
I for one will be rooting for him wildly all the way. The story is just so inspiring.
But I’ll also be watching Ansu Fati in the Premier League, hoping he turns things around at Brighton, under a visionary coach who believes in him.
I hope the adults in the room look out for Yamal, and protect him from himself. It would be so disappointing to see him burn out the way Pedri has, or suffer from repeated injuries like Ansu.
Let’s show respect for La Masia by valuing the players who come out of it better.
That means helping them manage their careers, and understanding that just because they make it to the first team, doesn’t mean they stop being kids.
Let’s get it right with Lamine Yamal.
His brilliance can be put to use without jeopardizing his future.
If he’s the next crown jewel of Barcelona, he should be treated with the care he deserves.