Updated: May 16, 2020
It was 2012 when little Aitana Bonmati first stepped foot on Blaugrana ground. She joined the club just as their senior women's side was beginning to hit a peak, fresh off their first Copa de la Reina win in two decades and their first-ever Liga title. As she grew up, the club grew up with her, recording unprecedented domestic doubles and UEFA Women's Champions League feats. It was apparent early in her development that she was a beacon of La Masia talents, so her growth and break out into the first team came swiftly amongst Barcelona's biggest ever milestones in both Spain and Europe.
Now, both her and Barcelona are on top of the world. At just 22 years old, she's become a regular starter in the first team, offering ever-improving speed, vision, goalscoring, and passing. Aitana is one of Europe's most coveted, Spain's most promising and Barcelona's most loved. And she was made in La Masia.
Aitana grew up in Sant Pere de Ribes, a town in the province of Barcelona just 40 kilometers from the Camp Nou. She grew up playing in clubs of both boys and girls until she reached the age of fourteen when she started a new chapter in her life by joining FC Barcelona's youth ranks. Upon her arrival at the club, she joined an elite generation of up-and-coming female talent that, unbeknownst to them, was going to be pivotal in the future milestones and eventual dominance of Spanish women's football.
Barcelona have made massive strides in advancing their girl's youth program over the years, producing a recent generation of talents that include Ona Batlle, Laia Aleixandri, Claudia Pina and Andrea Falcon, amongst many others. But if there is one player that encapsulates the "Barcelona dream" of going through the ranks of La Masia and establishing themselves as an irreplaceable part of the first team, that would be Aitana. She came through the youth teams of the club and won numerous titles along the way, and once she was promoted to Barcelona B in 2014, she played a pivotal role in the B team achieving their first-ever Segunda B title. After just four years with the club, she was signed on by then-manager Xavi Llorens to be a fully-contracted first-team player at 18 years old.
Aitana joined the first team in 2016, just as they were starting to professionalize and make landmark signings like Lieke Martens, Elise Bussaglia, and Toni Duggan, to name a few. The summer of 2017 was discouraging for the future of La Masia youth players, as Barcelona saw what seemed like an exodus of B-team talents who were forced to leave in order to make room for the bigger names. Aitana stayed with the club, but felt the repercussions of this period of the reconstruction as well, receiving just 5 starts during the 2017-18 campaign.
It wasn't until 2018 that she began to make serious waves in the first-team setup. Her ever-present performances at that year's U20 Women's World Cup more than physically and mentally prepared her for the coming year with Barcelona. Little did she know, she was going to be at the forefront of Barcelona's most iconic season to date, where they reached the UEFA Women's Champions League final for the first time in their history. Aitana recorded 37 matches played with the first team that season, the 21-year-old exceeding well-established club figures like Lieke, Vicky, and Leila in appearances. She also scored 13 goals and started in that year's Champions League final. Aitana rode that momentum into Spain's second-ever women's World Cup bid, where she played in two group stage matches against South Africa and Germany. As a result of her achievements, she was awarded the Catalan Player of the Year award for 2019. So far, in the year 2020, she's recorded many more milestones and "firsts" with the club, including her 100th senior appearance and two titles- the first-ever Supercopa Femenina and her first senior league title.
Not only does she have plenty of accomplishments with Barcelona under her belt, but Aitana is also one of the figureheads of Spain's most recent generation of youth success. She, along with Barcelona counterparts Claudia Pina, Patri Guijarro, Mariona Caldentey, and Candela Andujar, has defined a generation of elite young talent coming from the developmental sections of Spain's top clubs. She's been a leader in Spain's youth sides since her late teens, and captained Spain's U19 and U20 sides to unprecedented levels. Specifically, she played a pivotal role as both a leader and a player at Spain's 2017 U19 EURO win and at the 2018 U20 Women's World Cup where Spain won second place.
Aitana, first and foremost, is an extremely versatile player, but she plays primarily as an attack-minded midfielder that stays towards the center-right of the pitch. Perhaps her biggest strength as a midfielder is her positional awareness, as she has a standout ability to find space anywhere on the pitch to receive balls, get forward, and make a play. She is also known for her dribbling ability, which is helped by her low center of gravity and her composure in staying on the ball. Despite her relatively short stature and low weight, she has the strength of a centerback and can hold her own against players that are much larger and taller than her.
Aitana is also notable for her incredible speed and acceleration, a quality put on display at the UEFA Women's Champions League final in 2019. When Barcelona were already mentally drained, victim of a 4-0 scoreline against Lyon, Aitana still found it in her tired legs to come from behind to outsprint notoriously speedy Shanice van de Sanden, preventing her from countering down the left-wing in the 61st minute.
Aitana outpacing van de Sanden during the 2019 UWCL final
Along with her outstanding physical strength, agility, and speed, Aitana is a strong-willed, mentally resilient person. This trait is invaluable for a young player at one of the biggest clubs in the world. She's given many examples throughout her career of times that she does not and will not give up. It takes a lot for a player to persist in bettering themselves enough to advance to the senior team and breakthrough as a regular starter, especially in the face of a major squad overhaul. When hearing her speak and reading interviews, it is apparent that she is an individual with a strong character, demonstrable leadership qualities, and an elite "never-say-die" mentality. This attitude can be at her disadvantage, however, because there are points where she's had issues with her discipline. Various periods of suspension, mostly at the Spanish youth level, have caused her to miss out on important matches. At the 2017 U-19 EUROs, she was named team captain for the tournament but missed the entire group stage because of a three-match suspension she picked up after a straight red against Belgium in the qualifiers. At next year's U-20 Women's World Cup, she was sent off with a second yellow in the semifinals against France and missed the final, where her leadership was desperately needed when Spain lost 3-1 to Japan.
Bonmati after being red-carded against France at the 2018 U-20 Women's World Cup
In reference to her positive qualities, one of her best matches so far this season came during the 9-1 thrashing of the future Real Madrid women's club, CD Tacon. She scored a brace and recorded an assist in the match, but what made this performance so special wasn't just the stats, rather her observable intelligence as a player both on and off the ball.
There are many points in the match where she can be found anywhere on the pitch, not just in her normal center-midfield position. Her positional awareness allows her to recognize when the team needs help offensively and defensively and, despite being an attack-minded player with an attacking role, she does not hesitate to track back to the backline during a counter-attack, help out defensively, and distribute the ball upfield.
Aitana in various defensive/defensive midfield positions
Aitana's work-rate is put on display in this match many times as well. A moment that caught my eye, in particular, was in the 29th minute- in the first photo below, it shows that the ball gets loose in Barcelona's box with Aitana completely out of frame. Tacon forward Chioma Ubogagu sprints after it, but instead of ball-watching or jockeying Ubogagu once she gets to the ball, Aitana (circled) sprint half the width of the field in one second, controls the ball and safely passes it up to Torrejon on the wing. This seems like a minuscule event, but by this point, Barcelona were only 2-0 up, and Aitana prevented what could've easily been turned into a counter-attack considering Marta's advanced position and the amount of space Ubogagu had in front of her.
Aitana sprinting, controlling the ball, and passing it to Torrejón
Later in the match, Aitana demonstrates her control and dribbling abilities when she scores in the 60th minute. Following a pinpoint pass from Alexia, Aitana stays onside with her run, and manages to control the ball. Once she gets into the box, she cuts back to shake off a Tacon defender, dribbles past the Tacon keeper who attempts to take the ball off of her feet in the edge of the box, and passes the ball into the goal with her right foot.
She hits the post in the 85th minute and attempts another run almost identical to her second goal in the 86th minute, except this time the keeper reads her intention and makes a point-blank save on the edge of the box. Aitana could've very easily recorded four goals in this match.
Her assist to Jenni is also demonstrative of her qualities as an attacking player. In the 75th minute, she makes a run from the middle of the pitch and receives a pass from Mariona, outrunning a Tacon defender before she finds herself in the box. Once she gets to the box, she finds herself in a two-on-two situation with the keeper, the Tacon defender, and Jenni. It's worth mentioning that she was sprinting straight towards the keeper because most players (and probably most strikers for that matter,) would've waited until the last second to make their decision of the play, either running straight into the keeper or going for the shot. Aitana instead passes it across goal just in time to avoid the outstretched keeper to a wide-open, onside Jenni who taps it in.
Elsewhere in this match, she can be seen quickly removing herself from a 1-on-3 situation in the middle of the pitch, bodying a player off the ball, sending multiple accurate long passes to players in advanced positions, switching the field of play, and alleviating pressure by passing back to players with space. At her best, Aitana's influence in a match is immeasurable, as she is a player who can do everything and more.
Aitana has boundless talent, some inherent and some influenced by the teachings of La Masia. Despite her current level that is already astronomical for a 22-year-old, she can only go up from here. Aitana has the qualities in place to evolve into one of the most complete midfielders on the planet.
In the years going forward, it's fully expected- if she retains her current level- that she will carry the torch as an essential part of Barcelona and Spain's future successes. Now with the RFEF's decision regarding the 2019-20 Primera, she has a long-awaited league title in her possession, the newest addition to a list of accomplishments that is bound to grow.