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Gavi was injured during the Spain game on Sunday. AFP
Lessons in handling youngsters
A look at LaLiga

Lessons in handling youngsters

"Gavi is broken, destroyed," said Spain coach Luis de la Fuente, not getting the irony that he'd played his part in breaking him

Rob Palmer. Commentator, ESPN

Malaga

Friday, 24 November 2023, 16:27

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Gavi is the latest 'wonderkid' to be struck by the FC Barcelona curse. Surely, they're learning; it can't be a curse, if the misfortune is self-inflicted.

Gavi followed Pedri, and Ansu Fati into the first team of the Catalan giants and then the Spanish national team. Unfortunately, he's now followed their path into the club infirmary for a long stay. It's not bad luck, or misfortune, it's lack of planning and the failure to learn from recent mistakes.

Ansu Fati burst onto the scene as the club's youngest scorer at 16, was fast-tracked into the Spain national team, and awarded Messi's number 10 shirt. He was on a roll until his meniscus tore in his second season and he didn't play football for 323 days.

Pedri was the next big thing. Same path, first goal at 16, 50 appearances before he was 18, young player award at the Euros, starred in the Olympic Final. He felt unstoppable until his career came to a grinding halt in 2022. He's only just coming back after a series of injuries.

So you'd think lessons would be learned when it came to the handling Gavi? Another teenage debutant, a fixture in the Barcelona team at 18, Player-of-the-Match in the Spanish Super Cup, vital to his country - so vital that the coach selected him in back-to-back internationals last week. He only made it through part of the second one before his knee packed in. "Gavi is broken, destroyed," said Luis de la Fuente, not getting the irony that he'd played his part in breaking him.

Gavi appeared in 49 club games last season, was a regular at the World Cup finals, took the 2022 Golden Boy award, and had played 999 minutes for Barça this season. I'm not a sports scientist, but I can tell you from those figures that he needed a rest.

Xavi, Barça's boss should have learned from his own playing experience and also the way his midfield partner Andrés Iniesta was nurtured. Both broke through early and their careers stretched two decades - yet they were handled carefully. Xavi famously saved the job of Louis van Gaal with a match winner when he was only 18. The Dutchman resisted the temptation to overplay him and sent him back to the B team. Even in his second and third seasons Xavi only started 15 games in each campaign.

The pattern was similar for Iniesta who became the club's most decorated player. He broke through as a teenager in December 2002 but wasn't handed a regular starting place until 2004.

Pep Guardiola oversaw their development and has taken the same approach at Manchester City. He resisted the calls to make Phil Foden a regular or farm him out for more gametime. Foden made his debut at 17, but was drip-fed substitute appearances in his first season. In his second season, he appeared 26 times but only started in three league games.

Coaches try to copy Guardiola's coaching philosophy but overlook his holistic approach. Take two other teenage stars. Alex Balde and Rico Lewis are international left backs for Spain and England at roughly the same age. Balde has played all but one of Barcelona's games this season; Lewis has been in every Manchester City squad but only appears fleetingly.

"Gavi is hyperactive; he doesn't want to rest," reasoned the national team coach. Every teenager resists being told to rest. Every teenage body and mind need to be told to have a chill.

Hopefully Barça have now learned a lesson and they will handle the latest 16-year-old wonderkid Lamine Yamal in a more sensible manner?

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