Barcelona needed a good news story on Wednesday after the window closed and Ansu Fati holding up his new No 10 shirt was that story.
It wasn’t the only tale perhaps timed to take the spotlight off the transfer market failings: Ronald Koeman had been offered a one-year contract extension but with a list of conditions.
He has to win things, he has to play with the Barca style, and he has to play Riqui Puig and Samuel Umtiti more. Such a poisoned chalice, and one offered so publicly, can only weaken the man in the technical area’s position more.
Ansu Fati has been given the No 10 shirt by Barcelona as the successor to Lionel Messi
Messi, Barcelona’s greatest ever player, wore No 10 for many years before leaving for PSG
So that’s Barcelona’s play going forward: the leader on the pitch is an 18-year-old and the leader in the dugout is on shaky ground.
Barca’s hopes of regenerating post Messi, and in the midst of their worst ever financial situation, rest with the former far more than the latter.
Fati’s acceptance of the No 10 is only going to send him up in the estimations of supporters, who already see him as the best way back to the top.
Even without the shadow of Lionel Messi, this is the shirt of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Riquelme. Barca don’t want to retire it. There is a sense that the team should have a No 10 and it’s going to someone who Messi adored playing alongside in their few appearances on the pitch together.
Fati’s promotion is a boost for Ronald Koeman (above), who has endured a difficult summer
Rivaldo (left) and Ronaldinho (right) are among those to have worn No 10 while at Barcelona
There are no doubts that Fati can become Barcelona’s best player if he comes back the same player he was before his meniscus injury sustained last November.
That injury to his left knee was supposed to keep him out for four months but he did not recuperate properly after the original operation and needed regenerative biological treatment (amid rumours of a second operation) to have any chance of starting this campaign.
It is easy to forget just how good he was at the start of last season before the injury wrecked things. He had scored five goals in 10 games and it was clear that Barcelona’s forward line would be built around him and Messi.
Fati was excellent at the start of last season but setbacks on his left knee ended his campaign
Spain coach Luis Enrique also decided that he would be first choice at the Euros. It all came tumbling down when he was injured in the game against Betis on November 7 2020 and everything ground to a halt.
It shouldn’t surprise that he accepted the challenge of wearing the 10. He is already in the record books as the youngest scorer in the Champions League and the youngest scorer for the Spanish national side. Everything comes fast at him and he has never not been able to deal with it.
Koeman also knows how important Fati is. He has been buoyed by the news he should be available after the international break and there is no question that Fati and Memphis Depay are the two players the Dutch coach wants in his front three through the campaign.
Koeman wants to play Fati with Memphis Depay (left) as much as possible, while Ousmane Dembele (right) is probably the man to complete Barcelona’s 9-10-11 front three
The third man will depend on form, fitness and the game in question. He likes the work-rate and sacrifice of Martin Braithwaite and he believes that new signing Luuk de Jong has plenty to offer. He also has the natural goalscoring of Sergio Aguero, although it remains to be seen if he ever actually plays for Barcelona or cuts his losses and leaves for the MLS in January.
Ousmane Dembele is the obvious choice to complete the front three. He ought to be available again by November. Before that Koeman might stick with Braithwaite’s toil.
All this is on the understanding that Koeman plays with a front three, and – judging from those leaked conditions to him signing a one-year extension to his current deal that runs out at the end of the season – it is being demanded of him.
He has to play a 4-3-3 with wingers; he has to give more opportunities to Puig in midfield, and in a back four (never a back three with wing-backs) he has to bring Umtiti back into the fold now that he is fully fit.
How Barcelona are likely to line up come the end of the year with Ansu Fati and Dembele fit
It’s no secret that Barcelona president Joan Laporta has kept Koeman in charge because he could find no one better in the summer and because the Dutchman was too expensive to fire.
The idea that he only gets to stay if he plays the Barca way, wins, and picks a couple of the players the club need him to pick, only weakens him in the eyes of the players, who all see the figure of Jordi Cruyff behind him, recently incorporated as new head of international scouting at Barcelona.
If Fati comes back as strong as he left then perhaps Koeman can ride that wave all the way to a contract renewal. Either way it is in these two that Barcelona must now put their faith. For all that has happened in the last three months their first XI is still special. If injuries allow Koeman to play it, all is not lost.