Gavi’s contract impasse at Barcelona and the problem of too much football

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“Gavi is still an unknown in Spanish football, even for the people around him,” Spain coach Luis Enrique said. “He does not just run, battle and work defensively. In attack and with the ball he is a very special player. He scores goals, you will soon see, shoots, has startling physical power and plays with both feet. He is a unique player. ”

Luis Enrique was speaking after Barcelona midfielder Pablo Martin Paez Gavira’s outstanding performance in last Thursday’s 1-1 UEFA Nations League draw with Portugal. Of course, you will know him as Gavi and the still just 17-year-old had been the game’s outstanding figure, showing tremendous personality and game intelligence to overshadow experienced Portuguese midfielders like Joao Moutinho and Bruno Fernandes.

Gavi’s attacking quality was especially clear as he led the counter-attack that led to Spain’s goal in that game at the Estadio Benito Villamarin. Picking up the ball after a Portugal corner, he carried it deep into the opposition half before perfectly timing and directing a pass into the path of Pablo Sarabia. The ball arrived with instructions for what to do next, and Sarabia obediently squared to give Alvaro Morata a simple finish. Gavi also set up clear chances that were missed by Morata and fellow midfielder Carlos Soler. Portugal’s equalizer came just a minute after he had left the pitch.

Three days later, the Andalusian was one of just three players who stayed in the XI for another Nations League game against the Czech Republic. He was again an outstanding performer in an uneven team performance, as they needed a late Inigo Martinez header to get a 2-2 draw.

La Roja’s other goal on the night came when Gavi received the ball from Manchester City’s Rodri in the Czech penalty area, well covered by two defenders. His first touch made just enough space for his second to be a perfectly guided low shot just inside the far post.

At just 17 years and 304 days, Gavi became the youngest ever scorer for Spain’s senior international team, passing his Barca team-mate Ansu Fati (who was just a week older when he had scored his first senior international goal against Ukraine in September 2020) .

Such precocity and personality has startedled most observers, but not Luis Enrique, who was Barcelona first-team coach back in 2015 when the Catalan team plucked the then 11-year-old from Real Betis’ youth ranks. Luis Enrique followed his progress closely, and just two months after his La Liga debut, came a first senior Spain international call-up for October’s UEFA Nations League semi-final against Italy. The debutant was preternaturally good as Spain gave probably their best all-round performance since the Euro 2012 final.

Gavi has started all six competitive games that Spain have played since, overtaking rivals for a starting spot in the favored 4-3-3 shape including Liverpool’s Thiago, Atletico Madrid’s Koke and Marcos Llorente, Valencia’s Soler, Napoli’s Fabian Ruiz and Real Sociedad’s Mikel Merino . Barring a change of mind or circumstances, Spain’s midfield at the World Cup next winter will be Gavi alongside his Barca clubmates Sergio Busquets and Pedri.

“If there was a player with conviction in the Spanish team against the Czech Republic, it was Gavi,” Luis Enrique said in Prague on Sunday night. “He either shoots himself or he gets into the area. That conviction is priceless. How much is that worth? ”

The ex-Barcelona player and coach denied that he was directing a message back to his old employers. But all the talk about Gavi’s “priceless” qualities, and some people not recognizing what they had, did seem pointed. Especially as Luis Enrique’s former team-mate and still friend Ivan de la Pena is now Gavi’s agent, and talks with Barca’s hierarchy over a contract extension and pay rise are currently deadlocked.

The teenager is still on the contract signed in 2020 which sees him paid around € 100,000 a year. His camp feel that he now deserves a salary similar to that of his fellow emerging superstar team-mates Pedri and Fati. Barca’s hierarchy argue that Gavi is still a rung below that level, a status reflected in their most recent contract offer.

Gavi’s camp are not the only ones puzzled by Joan Laporta and sporting director Mateu Alemany pleading poverty when it comes to current players’ contracts, and then talking publicly about the possibility of being able to attract some of the game’s biggest earners, such as Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski.

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Given that Gavi’s current deal has just 12 months left to run, the situation is increasingly difficult, as Barcelona president Joan Laporta has openly admitted.

“(Gavi) has had an offer for a while now, and we still have no news that he has accepted it,” Laporta told L’Esportiu in late May. “The situation hurts us as we do not understand what his agent is playing at. Our proposal, within our salary scale, is more than acceptable. Now it seems his agent is pushing back the decision. I do not like what is happening. “

Meanwhile, Gavi’s performances for club and country have put him on the radars of Europe’s biggest and richest clubs. Catalan press resorts have credited all of Liverpool, Chelsea, Everton and Bayern with an interest, and talked of bids of € 40 million being made.

The argument that Gavi deserves to be valued by Barca as an important first-teamer, not a young squad player, is backed up by the numbers. Xavi’s preferred first choice midfield when everyone is available may currently be Frenkie de Jong alongside Pedri and Busquets. Yet Gavi still featured in 47 club games last season, 36 of them as a starter. Should De Jong leave this summer, perhaps for Manchester United, his workload next year could be even higher.

That may not be a good thing for anybody involved. Including 45 minutes for Barca B back in September, Gavi played a total of 3,135 minutes for his club in 2021-22. Only Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Busquets, Jordi Alba, De Jong and Ronald Araujo spent more time on the pitch. Add in 110 minutes with Spain’s Under-21s last September, then 569 minutes of senior international football during the season, and the teenager has already clocked up 3,814 minutes in his first season at the top level.

Luis Enrique admitted to substituting him against Portugal last Thursday as the player had felt a possible muscle problem. However he was back in the XI three days later in Prague. He could also now feature in Spain’s other Nations League games this window – at Switzerland on Thursday and against the Czech Republic in Malaga on Sunday.

This brings to mind fellow whizz-kid Pedri’s amazing 2020-21 season, which extended through last summer’s European Championship and Olympic Games, and should make both Xavi and Luis Enrique think. The Canary Islander paid for that over-exertion (which was obvious at the time) with a string of muscle injuries that hampered him throughout the course of the 2021-22.

Gavi turns 18 on August 5, a week before the La Liga season begins. It should really be in the interests of all concerned to get his contract situation sorted well before then.

After an amazing last 10 months, Gavi looks set for an incalculably bright future. To have the best opportunity for a stellar career, he needs a physical and mental rest now, because next year is likely to be even busier.

(Top photo: Quality Sport Images / Getty Images)

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