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Gavi at Barcelona: Composure, tenacity, and the vision to reach the pinnacle of football

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Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images

“A homegrown player always has extra commitment, extra dedication. It’s their home, they’re Barça fans, they were nurtured here. It’s like owning a family business.” Xavi Hernandez had this to say with regards to the youth Barcelona have at the moment; a crop of players much reminiscent of the one he himself was part of at the turn of the century.

The sheer level of dedication that the youth at Barça put into the club deserves to be given as much admiration as it merits reverence. One player who stands out over his peers for precisely this is none other than Pablo Paez Gavira; or as he is more colloquially known, Gavi.

The 17-year-old has consistently been in the headlines in recent months, and with merit. His performances encapsulate all that it means to play for Barcelona, made special given his age and relative inexperience to first-team football.

Owing to how much he has improved in recent months, his trajectory is clear; the only way for Gavi, is up.

To the top. (Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images)

In appreciation of Gavi’s efforts this season, Barça Universal explores his rise to the top of Barcelona’s midfield in three parts.

Firstly, we will explore the opportunistic nature in which he took hold of a broken midfield. Furthermore, we will take a deep dive into his tactical profile to see precisely what it is that makes him special. Finally, we take an analytical look into what he and the club imperatively need to improve for him to have the best possible career in the future.

Gavi and the essence of opportunism

The impact of the European market

It is no secret that Barcelona are going through one of their most challenging financial periods ever. The Catalan club went far and wide in their pursuits for players to make part of the new guard, but in all their efforts, futility reigned.

One of Ronald Koeman’s primary targets for the summer was Georginio Wijnaldum. The ex-Liverpool midfielder was brilliant for his club side, and with Koeman in the national team, his dynamism made him one of the best in the centre of the park.

Be it in the form of goals, assists or a last-ditch tackle, Wijnaldum was always there to help the Oranje in their pursuits for victory. 

The one thing stopping Barcelona from getting their hands on the Dutchman is the same one that led to Lionel Messi leaving – a lack of funds.

Barça did not have the financial pull that was necessary to acquire someone of his perceived calibre, as his salary demands were too high for the Blaugrana to take on. He then saw it fit to don the blue and red, not of the Catalans, but that of PSG.

Gini’s move to PSG turned out to be a blessing in disguise. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

Barcelona’s goals in the transfer market did not only involve players coming in, but also going out of the club. They had many aspirations to sell players to make money to at least help them get partly out of their crippling debt as well as ironically fund the registration of three ‘free’ signings they were too broke to register.

Miralem Pjanic was one of the exits the club was successful in making, and with his departure came extra room for other midfielders. He had been a problematic figure in Barcelona, from several different points of his manager’s view.

The Bosnian was a misfit behaviourally and sportingly — a menace to the bench despite having the most seemingly innocent of faces.

The other midfield exit that Barcelona made was directly instrumental in giving Gavi a place in the team was that of Ilaix Moriba. It was one of the more disparaging exits, as they expected him to show more gratitude and empathy, especially in the face of such an onerous financial situation.

The relationship between player and club has deteriorated to the point at which Joan Laporta wants to hear nothing more about him, even reportedly calling him a traitor.

Had the Guinean stayed, he, and not Gavi, would have been the one to take the reins in Barcelona’s midfield. Ilaix already demonstrated his level with Barcelona against tough opponents and was clearly ready to lead the way in the midfield.

His Spanish counterpart would have come around eventually, however, the highest chances are that this would happen at a much later date. Every void longs for something to fill it, and in this case, that was Gavi.

The three players mentioned above, by not being here, quite unknowingly led to the start of a promising youngster’s career. Nevertheless, this was not the only factor outside his realm of influence contributing to his start.

Technical difficulties from within

If the European transfer market played into Gavi’s favour with regards to his ascendancy in Barcelona’s ranks, then so too did matters within the Catalan Capital. As a conglomerate of injuries, absences and outright woeful form from certain players, the 17-year-old was able to grab hold of a starting spot. 

Sergi Roberto is the perfect example of an individual whose absence dramatically shifted the tides in the Barcelona dressing room.

To most managers, the Catalan stands out not for being the most gifted in any given realm, as from a purely technical standpoint, he is one of the least inspiring players in the team, but more so for his polyvalent nature. 

Vanilla in a team of choco-chips. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

He can play in virtually every position on the pitch, bar perhaps the central defence and goal. It stands to reason that after an injury sustained by such a player — one he is yet to recover from after all these months — the coach was forced into seeking alternatives in the academy. 

Another player whose performances radically influenced the emergence of Gavi was none other than Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian footballer could nimbly be labelled a golden goose not worth a penny.

This season, despite the odd goal against Valencia and the penalty against Villarreal, the ex-Liverpool star was indubitably among Barcelona’s worst-performing players.

His decision-making ability was, to put it kindly, painfully abhorrent. It mattered not where he was deployed. Regardless of whether he was the team’s mediapunta, left interior or winger, he periodically could not muster up enough quality to justify any second which he spent on the pitch.

This, along with his eventual departure to Aston Villa, played a major role in facilitating the integration of Gavi into Xavi’s dynamics. 

Finally, In the 2020/21 season, Pedri Gonzalez was the star of the Barça midfield. The Spaniard himself, much like Gavi, agilely took over what was once a highly contested spot between Arturo Vidal, Arthur Melo and Ivan Rakitic.

While never having been in La Masia, the Spaniard fulfilled all of Barcelona’s requisites without the slightest inkling of doubt. He graced the midfield with his precocious dexterity in passing, otherworldly calm and composure on the ball, and overall likeable character.

With talent such as his, came an unquenchable desire from all his managers to milk every ounce of creativity he had to offer. So important was he to the functioning of Ronald Koeman, Luis Enrique, as well as Luis de la Fuente’s sides, that by the end of the season, he was the individual with the single most matches played in all of Europe.

Pedri was exhausted come the end of last season. (Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images)

By default, this resulted in the now 19-year-old falling in and out of injury for months on end, something which Gavi was more than open — and quick — to capitalise on to gain minutes under Koeman then, and Xavi now. 

Gavi is, whether or not he knows it, the ultimate opportunist. The youngster had a plethora of circumstances radically out of his realm of control, falling ever so intricately into his favour.

Be it through drama in the transfer market or the availability of his teammates for one reason or another, the Spaniard was able to make hay while the sun shone brightly upon him.

Now that we understand the circumstances leading up to his selection, it is now worth taking a look at why he specifically was selected and how he remained relevant in the team’s dynamics.

A technically diverse profile

The stats speak for themselves

When it comes to Gavi, for all his attributes, two things stand out; his rathe-ripe quality on the ball, and his immense in-game character.

In most football clubs, interiors are of two types. There is one who will offer more composure than he does penetration, while there is another who will act in some ways as a mediapunta; dominating zone-14 and one half-space, taking shots on goal, and taking bigger risks with his passing. Gavi is more of the second type than the first.

With regards to him, the statistics speak for themselves. In La Liga, he has scored twice and provided a further four assists.

According to FBRef, this season he is a top ten midfielder when it comes to through balls, dribbles attempted, and goal creating actions. Given his habitual positioning and gleamingly offensive nature, his xG to game ratio are among the highest in all of Europe. 

Furthermore, his on the ball persona makes the Spaniard quite the prospect. He attempts dribbles more often than one would expect and is consequently one of the most fouled midfielders in Europe. This is, of course, a massive plus for his side, owing to the threatening zones on the pitch where he receives these fouls.

Gavi carries the ball with a feather touch. (Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)

Far from just an offensive figure, Gavi is more than ready to chip in defensively. The Spaniard is easily among the best pressers of the ball. On average, he attempts 23 pressures per game, around seven of which are in the final third of the pitch. 

As the sages once coined, there is more than one way to skin a cat. In the same vein, the 17-year-old is versatile in his methods of getting the ball back from the opposition, exemplified by his 0.77 interceptions per game (top 4%) and 1.92 passes blocked per game (top 7%).

Understanding the intricacies of Gavi’s playing style

As per the Cambridge Dictionary, a genius is a person who has very great and rare natural ability or skill, especially in a particular area such as science or art. More than merely utilising this term to compliment the youngster, Gavi embodies it on a game by game basis. 

On the ball, Gavi is elegance personified. The 17-year-old possesses a distinct ability to play in the tightest of spaces, using his nifty footwork and close control to breeze past opponents.

The Blaugrana seems to possess some of the stereotypical Brazilian flair in his veins, as is seen in the effortless manner in which he emasculates his opponents. Whereas some flaunt their dexterity on the ball merely for the sake of showboating, Gavi does so with a clear purpose in mind: to be productive and advance the ball.

Granted the midfielder is predominantly right-footed, he is more than capable of launching attacks with his left foot thanks to his ambidexterity.

Gavi fits the bill, and much more. (Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)

Gavi’s proficiency at distributing the ball to either flank of the pitch is an incredible asset for Xavi Hernandez. The sheer unpredictability innate to his two-footed nature — something we also see with Ousmane Dembele — grants him an edge over his rivals from both a technical and tactical standpoint. 

Indeed, for Gavi, technicality reigns supreme. The Spaniard boasts anything but a domineering physical stature, as his minuscule body frame and meagre height of 1.73 metres would be the last thing to bring chills down the spine of any opposition.

Where he lacks in physique, he both by default and design makes up for in intelligence.

He is the quintessential Barcelona midfielder. A proper scanner of the pitch, Gavi evaluates his surroundings in search of the most favourable outcome when indeed, he does attempt to pass the ball.

The entire process constituting a pass, from the reception of the ball to its eventual distribution, is no laughing matter in Barcelona. Lacking the bare minimum in concepts such as these is one of the factors which hindered Philippe Coutinho’s growth.

In his passing, Gavi is incredibly versatile in his methods of lacerating his opposition. This could be in the form of a long ball, through ball, or a pass wide into the ever mobile wingers. 

The Spaniard’s vision and timely decision making also give him an edge over his teammates. Gavi is the last person in the world to squander the opportunity to dissect the opposition with a defence-splitting pass into an unmarked player.

As Johan Cruyff said, “Every disadvantage has its advantage.” Owing to his small body and thus low centre of gravity, Gavi is also a phenomenal dribbler of the ball; a facet rarely seen in today’s more mechanical midfielders.

Given his immaculate positioning, regardless of whether he receives the ball with his back to the goal or facing it, he is competent enough to give his team a positional or situational advantage. Such was the case as he scored his first-ever goal for Barcelona, off a sumptuous turn, close ball control and a delectable finish into the bottom corner. 

Comfortable and brilliant. (Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)

Barça’s defenders stand out not only for their on the ball attributes but also their dexterity when it comes to effectuating defensive tasks. For Gavi, defending comes naturally; it is second nature to him. Given all the years he has spent in La Masia, he has got a more than reasonable idea of how best, how much, and when to defend.

As his statistical profile demonstrated, Gavi is far from lax when it comes to defending. His defensive tasks, as the Garnet and Blue prefer them to be, are predominantly accomplished through proactiveness (through early pressing) rather than reactiveness (by fouling unsuspecting opponents in one’s own half).

Such activity in defence is certain to woo many, notably Xavi, who demands the very best his players can offer on a game by game basis.

It is one thing for Gavi, at his age, to be this confident in his own abilities. It is completely another to be able to replicate a self-set standard of performances on a weekly basis for club and country.

This consistency, which the likes of Philippe Coutinho desperately lacked, has led him to be adored by the Camp Nou faithful, emerging as the recipient of chants of his name on more than one occasion. Gavi is, in many ways, a phenom in the making.

Versitality in the face of unidimensionality

In today’s footballing world, polyvalence, or versatility, is not something that is always cheered for. While the term is inherently neutral in nature, the general value attributed to it is one of skepticism.

It is not very often for players who are multifaceted to equally be dextrous in their respective crafts. For every Joshua Kimmich that exists, there are five — with all due respect to him — Sergi Robertos. Gavi breaks Barcelona’s cycle of technical scantiness with this regard, being not only versatile but skilled.

He gained traction in the footballing world primarily for his exploits as a central midfielder and more specifically, an interior. It is clear to see why this is, as the number 30 has been deployed in that exact role more often than not by his managers.

Despite the fact that he invariably is best suited to playing this role, the Spaniard is a footballer of a very complete profile. In the Juvenil, a branch several ranks below the first team, Gavi donned the ten shirt, and this should by no means come as a surprise. The youngster has all the technical agility and positional awareness to occupy the role. 

It’s easy to forget Gavi is just 17. (Photo via Getty)

As a mediapunta, his sublime exploitation of spaces is a marvel; especially given his age. In the first team, this is not a role that has been sufficiently explored by Xavi, however one which, if put to use could yield incredible results. 

After all, Gavi possesses the vision of a chameleon thanks to his perpetual scanning of his surroundings, as well as agility akin to that of a monkey to bypass all forms of pressure as he waltzes through rival defences. His pinpoint passing to just the right targets is always a treat to the eye, as he can often be seen creating chances out of virtually nothing.

Playmaking to him is something he briskly takes in his stride. His sheer dexterity in the craft already would give off the impression that he was a veteran.

Bar the more central roles, Gavi stunned Barcelona’s Twittersphere with his performances in the wider areas. Much like Andres Iniesta back in the day, the Spaniard has no grievances whatsoever with being deployed as a winger for his team.

The 17-year-old’s unwavering character in the face of opposition grants him ease in the wings, where boldness and tenacity are synonymous with the success of those who dare call the spot their own. Gavi’s ability to take on players is heaven-sent, both for himself and his manager.

Once wide, his positional understanding provides him with a fluid interchange of roles, granting him the chance to cut inside whenever he so desires, as well as the chance to play the odd cross into the penalty area. If doing this necessitated dribbling past one or two players, then the Spaniard, through his technical profile, is more than suited in doing it.

In modern-day football, every single individual is seeking one way or another to maintain a status of relevance in their respective team. For certain players, being the best in just one position is enough; as is the case with Sergio Busquets, a player so proficient in his craft he is borderline irreplaceable.

For others, and especially someone as young as Gavi, one of the best ways to maintain a consistent fixture in the manager’s plans is to be as apt and flexible as possible. 

It suffices to say that this season, he has opened up the door to be a more than a suitable option for the team in a minimum of three positions. This is not versatility in doing the bare minimum across a wide array of positions, but consistently offering the best of many worlds.

Gavi has demonstrated in various ways that he possesses all that it takes to maintain a starting spot in the team for years to come. The stats speak for themselves, painting a portrait of a dynamic midfielder with some remarkable figures in the most crucial of metrics.

Based on pure technique, the Spaniard has been clay-modelled into a profile Barcelona strives to uphold in their midfielders. Juxtaposing this is his polyvalence, which regardless of the day, preserves his relevance in the squad.

The landscape, howbeit, is not all rose in the young cadet’s palette. There are a number of aspects which assuredly need improving, both from the individual and the club.

What is the next step in Gavi’s career?

Rotations to allow him to flourish

It is numbly comprehensible why every single manager who has gotten to experiment with Gavi takes a liking to him. The midfielder regularly demonstrates cleverness beyond his years, which serves his managers well. 

Notwithstanding, a lack of rest might be extremely detrimental to his career. Already at the tender age of 17, Gavi has played 29 matches for Barcelona, amassing a superb 1800+ minutes for the garnet and blue, or an average of ~62 minutes per game. 

While, in many cases this would be a cause for celebration, it is imperative that Barcelona proceed with caution.

The boy needs rest. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

The Catalans cannot take the same uncalculated risks that Everton or Manchester United did with Wayne Rooney for instance, which due to overuse in his formative years, resulted in a career that shone for far less time than it should have.

Just last season Barcelona made that exact mistake with Pedri, and while he seems now to have recovered from a layoff that lasted several months, there is no telling yet how much this will affect him for the remainder of the campaign. 

Gavi has thus far been managed reasonably well; at least with Xavi Hernandez in charge. For the sake of the youngster’s career, Barça need to pay close attention to the degree to which they are using him in the central midfield. It is a physically demanding position, and given his age, overburdening him is the last thing that Barcelona would want.

A calmer approach to defending

Gavi has one of the boldest, most extravagant characters in the team. Fearless in the face of danger, he is ready to take on virtually anyone. This is just as much a virtue to him as it is a vice, as for however much technicality he possesses on the ball, he at times is quite the liability off it.

It would be a fool’s errand to point out all that makes him gleam in comparison to his teammates whilst failing to equally put to light facets in his play where he can improve as an individual.

Indeed it is quite a worrying statistic to have someone who has ten yellow cards in a span of 1800 minutes, or essentially one every two games.

Already this season, he has incurred three suspensions: one from an accumulation of five yellow cards in La Liga, one red card from a double yellow card against Sevilla, and another following an accumulation of three yellows in Europe, as recently as the second leg against Napoli.

Probably not the best way to take rest. (Photo by Fran Santiago/Getty Images)

It is worth pointing out the sheer banality and perhaps absurdity of the cards he concedes. Against Napoli, there was no need whatsoever for him to tug on the shirt of his rival, but he did nonetheless, earning himself a cheap but avoidable suspension ahead of the tie against Galatasaray.

With regards to tackles, while he does not do them at a very frequent level, his timing and inexperience result in poor execution, and unnecessary cautions. Other times, out of pure rage, he seemingly intentionally opts to spite his rivals. 

Gavi is a confrontational type of person in his playing style; that much is clear as daylight. Nevertheless, there is a time and a place for everything. One of his biggest aims for either the remainder of this season or the start of the next should be to develop a cooler head in tense situations.

He could follow Pedri’s playbook, as the Spaniard is the model for equanimity no matter the circumstances presented to him. In doing this, Gavi will have taken one of the biggest steps of his young career. 

The untrodden path ahead gives Gavi the opportunity to carve his footprints into the fresh soil, and be assured he’ll not deviate.

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