If you minus the squad investment controversy, and the need for Barcelona to reestablish itself as king in Spain and Europe again, there is another dimension to its sizeable summer transfer spending. It’s still trying to plug an 18-year-old gap: Lionel Messi’s time in the Blaugrana first team.
18 years. That’s the age of perhaps its most valuable young player: Gavi. For all the talk of striker Robert Lewandowski, defender Jules Koundé and the other major Camp Nou signings, it’s the young Spanish midfielder set for arguably the defining spell at the club. It should determine whether he and Barcelona come of age.
Going by some indicators, Gavi already has. So far, Barcelona has fended off any interest in him, with Liverpool among the European heavyweights supposed to have eyed the teenager, whose liveliness and trickery have captured many people’s imagination.
Where he wishes to play is still anyone’s guess, with some rumors that a highly anticipated contract renewal depends on whether another player, Manchester City playmaker Bernardo Silva, becomes yet another blockbuster addition. That is despite not yet registering signings with La Liga. In any case, the idea that Barcelona could make him second fiddle to the Portuguese could be a dealbreaker for the academy graduate. As good as Bernardo is, his employer would do worse than listen to his talent, as his stock at 18 indicates just how precious a player he is, even now.
Barcelona, though, is under pressure. Failure to turn big dollars—also spent on Vegas clásico match-winner Raphinha—into success could quickly see the board flailing around even more next year. While everyone has to pull their weight, if Gavi makes the telling difference from midfield, that will tell us a lot about him and Barcelona moving forward.
Holding onto him and similarly revered Pedri is more vital than ever. If this spending operation does not work out, it will need to—at least—have its young stars committed to the longer-term project. Sportively and commercially, they could prove trump cards in the future, with their marketability and commercial value likely to boom in the coming years, as Messi’s did.
Keeping these players happy and, crucially, ensuring it can afford to keep them—which finally snapped with Messi—will mean it has two valuable assets down the line. As the Financial Times cited, 19-year-old Pedri is the CIES Football Observatory’s fourth-most valuable player worldwide.
Gavi is not Messi and never will be. Nor will anyone, for that matter. But on previous evidence, Barcelona benefits from players in the Gavi mold—agile, precise passers and tricky to dispossess when on the ball. Barcelona must keep a successful Gavi at all costs, assuming its curious financial operations and La Liga’s vigilance permit it.
That’s especially pertinent when you consider the man nurturing him pitch-side. Xavi perfected the same central midfield role during Barcelona’s golden days, understanding the position inside-out. Despite his lack of experience coaching in Europe, one key benefit to recruiting Xavi was his tactical nous and appreciation of the game—clear to see during his playing days at the team he now manages.
At a juncture when Barcelona is selling more of itself for short-term gain, the diminutive teenager epitomizes what many soccer romantics associate with the Blaugrana at its best—a side with a clear identity thanks to players in the Gavi-Pedri mold. Losing that would be a blow.
By no means has Barcelona deserted its youth during this mammoth spending spree. Ansu Fati, another promising Spaniard, is a cog in Barcelona’s plans and hopes for an injury-free run when the action resumes. Nico González, who accrued more experience last campaign, is another.
But if Barcelona’s business is not finished, it risks impulsivity over sustainability. Barcelona’s seasonal acquisitions are all 25 or over and may be used as quick fixes, replacing a more considered plan. Get the balance right, and everything can click. Albeit a season-opening game, Lewandowski’s seller Bayern Munich is fresh off dismantling Eintracht Frankfurt thanks to a blend of top recruit Sadio Mané and—more so—its nurtured young midfielder Jamal Musiala. That’s the mix Barcelona needs.
For all the hype surrounding the fresh faces, there is no player like Gavi. And there is no closer imitation of Messi than the youngster either. And it’s timely, with a growing clamor for his return in some capacity. In the meantime, Barcelona should focus on recreating the Argentine’s spirit with the crop it already has. That’s not easy to buy.