Ansu Fati and Brighton just isn’t working out

Any prospect of Ansu Fati reigniting his career with Brighton & Hove Albion in the Premier League appears to have evaporated.

The on-loan forward, who is on £160,000 a week at Barcelona, was left out of the squad for the 0-0 draw away to Brentford by head coach Roberto De Zerbi to work on his fitness.

Fati was an unused substitute for Sunday’s 2-1 defeat by Liverpool at Anfield, in which January signing Valentin Barco made his league debut in stoppage time.

Fati, 21, and 19-year-old former Boca Juniors left-back Barco were both absent from the 20-man squad at Brentford for the same reason.

“Fati and Valentin Barco I didn’t decide to play with them in the squad for this game,” De Zerbi said. “I wanted them to work alone to improve their physical condition.

“He (Fati) is working very well, but from him I have different expectations. I haven’t changed my opinion about Ansu Fati. He is one of the best talents in the world for his age.”

Fati has not lived up to that assessment by any stretch of the imagination during his loan. De Zerbi’s decision to leave him out at Brentford represents an extraordinary vote of no-confidence, considering the forward options that were available to the Italian as Brighton pursue European qualification for the second season running. They have also scored just four times in eight games since the 5-0 win away to Sheffield United.

De Zerbi thanks Brighton’s fans at Brentford (Andrew Kearns – CameraSport via Getty Images)

A minor ankle injury ruled out Republic of Ireland international Evan Ferguson. Rather than having Fati on the bench, De Zerbi plumped for another 19 year-old Irish prospect, Mark O’Mahony, who is yet to make a senior appearance, and Cameron Peupion. The 21-year-old Australian, on loan to Cheltenham in League One in the first half of the season, has only played two first team games in the FA Cup.

That is some slap in the face for Fati. He was touted as a successor to Lionel Messi at Barcelona during an eye catching start to his career at the Camp Nou five years ago before a series of injuries stunted his progress.

Injury problems have hampered him again at Brighton. There were signs of encouragement as Fati scored four goals in 14 outings before suffering hamstring damage at Nottingham Forest at the end of November. He returned to Spain for treatment and was ruled out for ten weeks.

He has failed to score, or to impress, in nine further appearances since making his comeback in February and overall has made only three Premier League starts.

It is a poor return for an investment of nearly £7million. Brighton are paying 80 per cent of Fati’s salary. That amounts to a weekly contribution of £128,000, which is a lot more than the wage of any other member of De Zerbi’s squad.

De Zerbi said: “Our responsibility is to help him to improve his performances, to improve his physical condition, to improve his mentality, because to play in the Premier League to have to be stronger in mentality, stronger in physicality and then we are ready to play with him in the first XI. When he shows us the right condition, I would be happy.”

It is doubtful that Fati will get many more opportunities to shine in the remaining eight matches which will determine the destiny of De Zerbi’s side. They are still in ninth place, a point behind Newcastle United and two points behind West Ham United with a game in hand, after ending a run of four straight defeats away from home in all competitions.

Joao Pedro, top scorer with 19 goals, made a promising return from nine matches out with a hamstring injury. Danny Welbeck, who started on the bench with Saturday’s visit by former club Arsenal in mind, was a threat when he came on, threatening to add to spectacular goals in the previous two games at Liverpool and the 1-0 home win in the second leg of the 4-1 exit on aggregate from the last 16 of the Europa League against Roma.

Julio Enciso is ahead of Fati in the pecking order as well. The 20-year-old Paraguay playmaker, who only returned in February from six months out with knee damage, also came off the bench in the second half at Brentford after missing the Liverpool defeat with a minor muscle injury.

Twenty-four shots in the match without scoring — the most ever for Brighton in a single Premier League away game without finding the net — is unlikely to persuade De Zerbi that Fati is a solution.

Suggestions in Spain that he would like Fati back on loan next season — the only basis on which Brighton could afford him — were given short shrift by the Italian before talks with owner-chairman Tony Bloom about the shape of the squad next season which will determine whether he wants to stay as head coach.

“I have not spoken with Tony yet and I don’t know about next season,” De Zerbi said. “Next season Deniz Undav will come back (from a season-long loan at Stuttgart) and I hope (Kaoru) Mitoma will be good (the Japan winger was ruled out in February for the rest of the season by a back injury).

“We’ve forgotten that Solly March was a crucial player for us and we have been playing without him from the 21st of October. At the moment we have not spoken about the future of the squad and the future of Ansu Fati as well.”

Brighton do not get many recruitment decisions wrong, but the expensive hire of Fati has not worked out.

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