An in-depth review of La Masía rising star Pablo Páez, or Gavi. A look at his profile, playing style and expectations for the future.
The history of FC Barcelona is rich with delightful and iconic midfield maestros that have left their mark at the club. Through their deep positional understanding, eye-catching technique and inventive nature, they have captivated viewers while making an impact at the Camp Nou. Adding an extra name to the list would seem easy as the number of successful examples in the past is tremendously large, but the pressure had never been as high.
Football these days has become a continuous search for idols and heroes, thus making expectations terribly high for anyone that has shown promising glimpses in this demanding world of sport. There are times, though, when the journey has been fascinating enough to justify all fine words directed towards an individual. Future is always uncertain with teenagers, but 15-year-old Pablo Paéz Gavi hasn’t needed to take a step in professional football to attract La Masía enthusiasts with his pure quality and progressive evolution.
Pablo Páez Gavira, also known as Gavi as an abbreviation to his second surname, was born on 5 August 2004 in Los Palacios y Villafranca, a city of fewer than 40.000 inhabitants where, curiously enough, footballers Jesús Navas and Fabián Ruiz were raised too. Los Palacios is located in the province of Seville, in southern Spain. Pablo began playing football in his hometown club La Liara Balompié as a Prebenjamín, but he didn’t last long there, since he soon moved to the academy of Real Betis. That’s where his talent started baking, as he played for Betis from age 8 to 10. His 96 goals in a domestic season with the Benjamín A caught the eye of all Spanish giants, among which were Real Madrid, Atlético de Madrid, Villarreal and, obviously, Barcelona.
Pablo Páez Gavi joined La Masía in 2015, and he hasn’t looked back since | Photo by FC Barcelona
Gavi ended up choosing to wear the blaugrana colours and, ahead of the 15/16 campaign, Pablo Páez made the move to La Masía. However, with the FIFA sanction overflying Barcelona, the boy had to wait until January 2016 to get registered with the Catalans. It was a difficult time for him as he yearned for his debut with the culés, but, once he was finally allowed to play, things weren’t much easier for him either. In the III Torneo Solidario Vicente Ferrer – Sant Cugat Esport against rivals Espanyol, he scored the equaliser of the game but, after an accidental crash with the opposing goalkeeper, he broke his nose. He had to go through surgery and miss roughly over a month of action.
Notwithstanding, Pablo Páez, renowned for his determination and tenacity, won the league title in his first course at La Masía, as Gavi himself scored a brace in the encounter away against Tecnofutbol (5–11) that handed them the domestic trophy. That Alevín A coached by Marc Serra was unbeatable, as they won all 28 games of the competition. That same year he would have to face none other than his former Betis in the final of the Torneig de Falles. The Sevillan kid netted one of the two goals in a 2–1 victory from the azulgranas, as he was also named the hottest prospect of the tournament.
When he started attracting attention from a wider audience, though, was in the prestigious La Liga Promises in December 2016. In the semi-finals against Real Madrid, Gavi was the hero as he scored a brace in a 2–0 victory. The first one came right after kick-off, following a recovery and back heel assist from teammate Xavier Planas, and a calm left-footed shot from Pablo to beat the goalkeeper in the one-on-one. Then, in the second half, he would complete his double with a trademark solo goal, this time with his right foot. After the miniclásico triumph, Barcelona advanced to the final, where Barça’s Infantil B would face and defeat Atlético de Madrid by 6–1.
Pablo is the leader and most prominent figure of an extremely exciting 2004 generation | Photo by FC Barcelona
From being considered the best Alevín in Andalusia – the large autonomous region of the south of Spain –, to being one of the most exciting gems in Barcelona’s academy. Gavi‘s progression in the past years has been very steady and satisfactory, and it doesn’t look like he will slow down anytime soon. In fact, Pablo Páez has quite clearly been one of the best players at La Masía this season as he has been shining in Sergi Milà’s Cadete A. While being part of a very promising 2004 generation that includes Diego Almeida, Arnau Casas, Marc Jurado, Biel Vicens, Xavier Planas, Aleix Garrido, Antonio Caravaca, Ilias Akhomach or Ángel Alarcón, Gavi may be the best of them all.
Moreover, at international level Pablo has already debuted with Spain’s U–16, alongside several other teammates from Barcelona. With him turning 16 this year, he will have many big European clubs on his back looking for him to sign his first professional contract with them. It is indispensable that Patrick Kluivert seals his renewal as soon as possible to avoid what could be a catastrophic departure. Thankfully, the work for his renewal seems to be underway already.
A magician is defined as someone that spreads magic, that invents, that produces the unexpected or unimaginable. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it can be a person who performs tricks for entertainment. We used the term wizard to describe Brian Peña already, but Brian has more aggressive and sharper moves as he seems to have the Brazilian flair in his veins in spite of being Spanish. By contrast, Gavi pulls rabbits out of his hat too, yet he does it in a different way. He has more lightness, more softness, even more elegance. He glides past defenders smoothly, easily. His tricks are not only for entertainment, though, but to produce something. Pablo Páez is very thorough and wants, above everything, to help his team for a common goal.
He could be a classic number 10, but Gavi has become tailormade for the middle line | Photo by FC Barcelona
Gavi could simply be described by the number he wears in his back: 10. He fits that role like a glove as he has enormous technical quality and creativity that gets exhibited when he carries the ball glued to his feet. To any feet, actually, as the 15-year-old is ambidextrous. A huge advantage that makes him even more unpredictable and indispensable, as opponents never know which direction will he head to. This offers him and the manager more tactical flexibility too. While he has a singular and exceptional feet, football is in his head. He doesn’t care if he usually is one of, if not the, smallest player on the pitch, as he always has his head raised up and is continuously scanning his surroundings and options ahead of him.
Even if he could perfectly be a traditional number 10, Gavi has also been changing his game and has become even more complete over the years. His future seems to clearly lie in the interior or central midfield position, the spot he has mostly occupied in 11-a-side football. He can be a mediapunta, winger or secondary striker, but his evolution has led to him being closer to the base of the midfield. Now, he not only playmakes and scores, but he is very involved in the build-up and is never afraid of asking for the ball in his own half. Pablo has an immense personality and has a strong character too, being motivated and ready to carry the team on his back whenever needed.
Occupying a deeper position in a 4–3–3 doesn’t seem to have affected his goalscoring figures much either. At the time of writing, he has 9 goals this term, being the second top goalscorer of the Cadete A after Ángel Alarcón, with 15. Gavi has the capacity, intellect and gift to influence the play in any zone of the pitch, at any moment. He is clever and quick thinking, with a phenomenal reading of the game and decision making. He understands which space he has to occupy and which choice he has to make.
A remarkable first touch to redirect the ball and evade the press from the rivals | Photo by FC Barcelona
In some ways, he could be related to Riqui Puig. Riqui used to be a false 9 in his beginnings but, while being very tiny, he matured into an all-round interior. Gavi is similar, in terms of having a small stature, a pinpoint passing accuracy – mostly through passes – and control of the ball that is very pleasing to the eye. Pablo, like Riqui, oozes class, luxury and delicacy, but productivity as well. In defence, he’s very active and attentive. Having such a wide set of skills while also being such a specialist in the creative aspect is what could make a difference between him and all the other footballers.
What does the future hold for Gavi?
Pablo Páez Gavi really seems one of the chosen ones. While he floats across any part of the field with great beauty, he wreaks havoc when he’s at the edge of the box too. With an innate quality, he has the mentality of a leader as well. It may be too early to tell this, but it looks crystal clear that Gavi was born to do big things in this game called football. As he transitions to a number 8 role, Pablo may be another delicious midfield maestro in the making.
La Masia, the state of football, and the future of the ‘Barcelona DNA’
An inconspicuous morning at the Ciutat Esportiva on the 6th of December, 2010 was interrupted by a historical message. The Ballon d’Or podium would be composed of three players from the same club and the same academy.
In a feat that is yet to be repeated, the massive presences of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, and Xavi Hernandez were felt across Europe throughout the year. That was arguably the moment that La Masia peaked. As the three posed together at the end of the training session for a photo, clasping a football together, they represented everything Barcelona stood for and everything that Barcelona’s football signifies.
A decade has passed, and it’s not a surprise to see that La Masia is yet to reach those heights. Players like these are generational. We know that for Messi, Iniesta and Xavi to reach the heights that they did, a lot of factors came into play. Out of these, La Masia’s backroom staff, coaches, managers deserve immense credit.
Since then, football has undergone changes as it always does. From controlling the game and keeping possession, and playing a patient passing game, the landscape is now focused on two major phases of play. Pressing and transitions. This raises a question which this article will try to answer; what changes, if any, will La Masia and, in turn, the Barca DNA have to undergo to adapt to the current state of football?
Football in 2021
In the 2000s and towards the early years of the 2010s, football was to some extent based on the French approach of pacey attackers with a strong midfield consisting of a ‘water-carrier’ type player accompanied by a more creative player, or on the Spanish approach of keeping possession and patiently playing your way around the opposition. In the past few years, the emphasis has been on efficient and intense pressing with innovative, adaptive transitions.
For example, though the pressing systems of some teams in the last decade, such as Sir Alex Fergusson’s Manchester United or Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona, were highly potent, they were not as intricate or well-timed as the current pressing systems. Rather, they were based majorly on optimal positioning and high work-rates.
It’s not that there aren’t teams that look to play a possession-based game nowadays, but that innovations in pressing and transitions are better rewarded due to the current footballing landscape.
You would be hard-pressed (pun fully intended) to find teams a decade or more ago that carried out these activities as well as Borussia Monchengladbach, Liverpool, or RB Leipzig do now. The positioning, player roles, and individual instructions, combined with the team’s structure and triggers, all combine to create a beautiful clockwork mechanism of pressing and transitioning.
Changes to the Barça style, if any
There is something special about the principles that La Masia is based on. Apart from those related to personalities such as humility, sincerity, and discipline, the more tangible ones such as the footballing model and the core philosophy behind it are in themselves a representation of a club of massive historical stature. What makes them special is how some of them act as the base, the sturdy philosophy, while some serve as flexible paths acting as a way to progress.
For example, consider the formations used in Barcelona. The 4-3-3 is always preferred as it allows for attacking play, controlled possession, and makes the most of great technique. This is a factor that is flexible to an extent. The most obvious example is Ronald Koeman’s recent 3-5-2.
Not a 4-3-3, but yet a formation that makes the most of great technique and looks to maintain possession. Granted, the formation is not the only thing that allows for the aforementioned qualities. It instead acts as the flexible path and allows for optimal balance between the club’s philosophy and tweaks made to the team to optimize the performance.
A rather steadfast characteristic is basic positional play. Optimal spacing, receiving behind the lines on the half-turn, forming triangles. Such aspects of Barcelona’s game are non-negotiable and for good reason. Having been taught these skills from childhood, every La Masia player assimilates them from day one.
These fundamentals are more than just simple abilities or skills. They are qualities that allow the player to adapt to most conditions and situations. This is because optimal positioning is the key to playing well in any position.
For a defender, tackling is then next best step once the positioning is sacrificed. For a midfielder, the body-orientation when receiving and ideal positioning are frequently very hard to display consistently. Similarly, offensively, positioning and spatial awareness — once again, things that are the basis of what is taught as part of modern football.
The point being, these core principles and the basics of what has been taught at La Masia and adapted by countless teams and systems across the globe. These should remain unchanged and should continue to form the basis for the players’ development. Not only are they fundamentals in football, but the way they are taught at Barcelona are such that they allow the players to adapt to situations well, perform with versatility and have a strong foundation.
The question posed in this article is not one with a candid answer. There is no single interpretation, it is impossible to neglect what is taught at La Masia or accept it completely. The basics, however, must remain. To ascertain the changes or alterations needed, let’s consider the cases of Riqui Puig and Ilaix Moriba, along with an exceptional midfielder and Gerard ‘Peque’ Fernandez.
Puig has had problems establishing himself under every manager in the first team. Apart from this, until recently, he was often neglected by Spain’s youth squads, only to receive the invitation for the U-21 Euros. The theory of him being physically deficient is, to an extent, true.
Consider Ilaix Moriba, a midfielder who has the same basics as Puig but is stronger, bigger, and has better shooting ability. In term of passing and vision, though, Ilaix needs improvement.
However, his skills are such that they allow his managers to count on him to make a difference despite the system. The point being made here is that not all short and agile midfielders can easily fit into the current footballing landscape. Different skills such as ball-carrying under pressure, strong attacking presence, etc., are not the norm for La Masia midfielders, but the lack of the same is being felt now. The examples of Xavi and Iniesta always spring to mind, but their pure intelligence and technical prowess is unmatched.
However, things are rarely black or white. There is a middle ground or an amalgam of both. And in this case, it is the aforementioned special midfielder — Nico Gonzalez. Currently playing for Barcelona B, Nico is a midfielder who represents modernity in the academy.
18-year-old and at 188cm, what immediately stands out regarding him is how he seems to glide across the pitch. Tackles come in, and they either bounce off him, or he just skips past them. Apply pressure on him, and he turns sharply and leaves the defenders looking at thin air. What makes him even better is his laser-guided passing and excellent special awareness. He has impressed everyone, and according to some news outlets, Ronald Koeman is looking to integrate him into the squad next season.
What Nico represents is a hybrid of two types of midfielders. The orthodox La Masia central-midfielder, an agile, technically proficient passing master combined with the attributes of press-resistance, strength, and balance needed to do well in the modern game.
Barcelona B’s striker, Gerard Fernandez, or ‘Peque’, as he is nicknamed, is a typical Barcelona striker. His link-up play when he drops back is always spot-on, his capableness in the box, admirable. To an extent, similar to Abel Ruiz. However, what they both lack is the ability to make a difference on their own.
Heading is naturally an issue, but apart from that, these aren’t the kind of strikers who can finish from anywhere in the box despite their usually impressive efficiency. Rather, they pass the ball into the net.
Though they have a unique skill set, one must also consider the needs of the modern game. A player like Mauro Icardi would not be preferred over a player like Erling Haaland or Kylian Mbappe. This doesn’t mean that Icardi isn’t an excellent player. It’s just that the situations needed for him to do well are much more constrained than those needed for the former two.
Evolution or adaptation?
It’s clear now that Barcelona need to retain the basis of what they teach at the academy. However, there are other skills that need to be given importance as well. It would be unrealistic to expect shooting akin to Ilaix from Riqui Puig. Despite this, to a certain extent, the latter would only benefit from picking up some of the abilities of the former. Players like Nico Gonzalez or Pedri Gonzalez, hybrids of what the past had to offer and what the future needs, are more valuable now than ever.
The philosophy that has gotten Barcelona where it is now is should remain the core of the academy. That is not negotiable. But there are areas, which if focused slightly more on, could make a huge difference and maybe, just maybe, eventually come close to replicating the iconic photo of Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi at the training ground.