Gavi’s ACL injury: Barcelona have lost their ‘heart with legs’. Where do they go next?


Gavi left the pitch with a pained expression. Fans of Barcelona and Spain are not used to seeing the 19-year-old midfielder like this; they feared the worst when they saw him putting his hands to his face to hide his tears.

Gavi suffered a knock when he was challenged by Georgia’s Luka Lochoshvili in the 20th minute but carried on playing after initially coming off. Three minutes later, he pulled up when controlling a ball and was forced off for good.

Those worst fears were then confirmed when the first diagnosis came back on Sunday night: an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear in Gavi’s right knee which means he is expected to miss the rest of the season and next summer’s European Championship.

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Gavi in pain following his injury on Sunday (Pablo Morano/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Barcelona sources, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their position, expressed frustration that Spain manager Luis de la Fuente had allowed Gavi to stay on the pitch once he had hurt himself in the collision with Lochoshvili. They say the injury happened then and not when Gavi tried to control the ball minutes later, as De La Fuente said in his post-match press conference. Spain declined to comment on this point when asked by The Athletic.

“We spoke with the player, it was not the challenge, the blow. It was when he controlled the ball,” De La Fuente said. “The first action had nothing to do with the second.”

This is especially painful for Barca, who have a small squad for this campaign made up of 19 players. Gavi has been indispensable for coach Xavi and is the third most used player in the team after goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and summer signing Ilkay Gundogan, with 1,171 minutes played.

Most used Barcelona players this season

Player

  

Games played

  

Minutes played

  

17

1,530

17

1,451

15

1,171

14

1,152

16

1,132

He has taken on even more importance given Barca’s injury crisis in the early part of the season, which has hit their midfield particularly hard. In the club’s 2-1 defeat to Real Madrid last month, Gavi, along with Gundogan and Oriol Romeu (Fermin Lopez is not yet registered as a first-team player), was one of just three senior midfielders available to Xavi. Sergi Roberto and Frenkie de Jong are still out injured, although the latter is expected to return this weekend against Rayo Vallecano.

Gavi was just as important last season, when Xavi played him as a fourth midfielder who pushed up in attack; a system that helped Barca win their first La Liga title since 2019. This campaign, he has been used at the base of midfield — partly because the team’s wingers Joao Felix, Lamine Yamal and Ferran Torres started in better form and because of the emergence of La Masia graduate Lopez.

That has led to a better Gavi on the pitch. As a player who already stood out for his desire, attitude and commitment to defensive sacrifice, he has been even more effective in this role. Despite defeat in last month’s Clasico, he put in a virtuoso performance and showed leadership beyond his years.

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Gavi shone in this season’s El Clasico (Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images).

Beyond the pitch, his loss is particularly sad because of how loved he is for club and country. He has long been one of the stars most applauded by Barca fans since his debut in August 2021 at the age of 17. He is a dressing room favourite — and the same is true of Spain, where even Real Madrid players, such as Joselu, have grown fond of him. The Madrid striker was one of the first to console Gavi in Valladolid.

Gavi’s injury is worrying given how reminiscent it is of Pedri’s case. Now 20, the midfielder played 73 games in his debut campaign for Barcelona and Spain in 2020-21. He was an undisputed starter for Barca after his move from Las Palmas and for Spain at that summer’s delayed Euros and the Tokyo Olympics. But that season took its toll in the form of fatigue and constant injuries the following season. Pedri returned this month from a hamstring injury that had kept him out since August and was not considered ready for a Spain call-up.

This season, Gavi has played 21 club and national team games in three months. The only two he has missed have been due to suspension: against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League and Deportivo Alaves in La Liga just before the international break.

No other Barca player has made as many as Gavi’s 131 appearances for club and country (104 for Barca; 27 for Spain) since his debut two years ago. And no other Spain player has featured in as many as his 27 games since his international debut in October 2021 — when he became his country’s youngest player at 17 years, two months and a day, a record since surpassed by his 16-year-old Barca team-mate Yamal.

Most Barcelona games since Gavi’s debut

Most Spain games since Gavi’s international debut

Gavi started both games for De la Fuente’s side in this recent international break, both 3-1 wins against Cyprus and Georgia that confirmed first place in group A. De La Fuente was asked whether Gavi should be rested before the match against Georgia, seeing as qualification had already been secured.

“Gavi is hyperactive, he never wants to stop, you just have to watch him train, that’s why he plays so much and so well,” he said on Saturday. Little more than 24 hours later, he was calling the game against Georgia “his most bitter victory”.

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There are parallels between Pedri, left, and Gavi’s situations (Silvestre Szpylma/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images).

Any player can suffer an ACL injury, but Gavi has had to contend with a high number of matches since he started playing in Barca’s first team. There is no doubting his significance to the side and it is hard to say who will replace him.

With Pedri back and De Jong about to return from the ankle injury he suffered in September, Xavi may have to turn to them to replace Gavi. Lopez has been performing well since he made the step up from Barcelona Atletic (the club’s ‘B’ team) and could play a similar role. He is not as assured as Gavi when it comes to recovering the ball but could give Barca more in attack.

If a player suffers a long-term injury of four months or more, La Liga rules allow a club that is over its salary limit to sign a replacement on 80 per cent of the player’s salary for the rest of the season. It has to be a short-term deal — meaning a loan or a contract until the end of the season — with a salary lower than Gavi’s wage.

Barca could sign another player, then, but nobody will replace the soul their young midfielder brings to the team. There is a reason Xavi calls him “cor amb potes” — a heart with legs. Barca’s has just been ripped out.

(Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images))





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