Barcelona’s future: Pedri, Gavi, Ansu Fati, Balde, Araújo...
We take a look at the young players set to play a big role in Barça’s attempts to recapture the club game’s most prestigious silverware.
Speaking at the club’s traditional Christmas lunch with the local media, president Joan Laporta stressed that Barcelona’s key aim for this season is to win LaLiga. Laporta’s words echoed those of the Barça head coach, Xavi Hernández, in an interview with the Blaugrana’s in-house media team earlier in the week. For the Catalans, 2023 is all about re-establishing themselves at the summit of the Spanish league.
As was amply demonstrated by Barça’s elimination in the group stages, winning the Champions League this season was never a realistic ambition - and it’s possible that the youthfulness of Xavi’s team proved a handicap in the crunch European games this autumn.
However, both president and coach are well aware that it’s the same youngsters who stand to be a crucial driving force behind Barça’s ambitions of once more being regular winners of the very top silverware. They’re integral to the club’s future - and not just in the long run. In the short term, too.
In 2022, Gavi succeeded his club-mate Pedri as the recipient of the Golden Boy, an award presented by Tuttosport to the outstanding Europe-based men’s footballer under 21. Still a teenager, the Andalusian shows a level of on-field maturity that simply isn’t normal for someone his age. He was a nailed-on starter for Spain at the World Cup, where he scored one goal, and Xavi also holds him in very high regard. The Barça coach hasn’t used him as much as other youngsters, though, and certainly doesn’t yet depend on him to the same degree as La Roja boss Luis Enrique.
In LaLiga, Gavi has appeared in all 14 of Barça’s games so far this season, but the midfield competition provided by Frenkie de Jong means his ratio of minutes played is lower than that of other young squad members, such as Alejandro Balde and Pedri. He has featured in 64% of Barça’s overall league game time in 2022/23. He’s yet to score in LaLiga, and has supplied one assist. In the Champions League, meanwhile, he played five out of six games, starting four.
Alejandro Balde, 19
The left-back’s progress has surprised even him. Nobody expected him to head into the World Cup period as Barça’s most-used defender, let alone go to Qatar. Handed his Spain debut in the opening game against Costa Rica, he acquitted himself well at the tournament, despite being a last-minute replacement for the injured José Luis Gayà.
In LaLiga, he was a player who merely made up the numbers in Barça’s matchday-one clash with Rayo Vallecano, but since then he has established himself as an essential member of Xavi’s squad, be it at left-back or as a stand-in on the right. He has played 12 out of Barça’s 14 league games this term. Along with the Rayo draw, the only other league fixture he has missed was the matchday-10 win over Villarreal - and since that day, he hasn’t failed to play the full 90 minutes. In total in LaLiga, he’s been a starter 86% of the time, and his a game-time percentage of 77% that is more than any other defender at the club. In attack, he has made his mark with three assists.
He seemed quite raw to begin with - which is probably why he didn’t play a minute in Barça’s first three Champions League games of the campaign. As of matchday four, however, he also became a fixture in Europe. His performance against Bayern Munich at the Camp Nou showed exactly why.
Ansu Fati, 20
Ansu Fati’s appearance figures have been deceptive in a season in which he’s still shaking off the effects of his fitness issues. The 20-year-old came into this campaign on the back of two years blighted by injury, with four operations under his belt already. When club doctors told him he needed to have yet more surgery to recover completely, he opted instead for a more conservative course of treatment. As he continues in his bid to rediscover his best form, he’s enjoying plenty of run-outs.
Indeed, it may surprise many Barça fans to learn that he has featured in every one of the team’s LaLiga games in 2022/23. However, it should be pointed out that he has only started three times in the Spanish top flight, and is yet to complete a match. The longest appearance he has managed is the 75 minutes he played against Villarreal at the Camp Nou. That said, he remains effective in front of goal: despite rarely being on the field for significant stretches, he has scored three times and provided three assists in LaLiga.
That Fati’s full house of league appearances is no fluke is demonstrated by the fact that he is also ever-present in the Champions League: six games in six, albeit he has only had two starts and has figured for just 239 minutes. His one 90-minute appearance in all competitions this season was in Europe, in Barça’s matchday-six dead rubber against Viktoria Plzen.
Fati was a late selection for Spain’s World Cup squad, and played twice in Qatar, managing 44 minutes of game time. For now, the best news when it comes to the young forward is that, for the first time in a long while, he’s not picking up any injuries. Very slowly, he’s getting back into his stride.
A player Xavi absolutely swears by, and on whose shoulders Barcelona’s trophy ambitions largely rest. He exceeded all expectations in his first season at the club, but was so overused in 2020/21 that, in his second year, he was hit by injuries and muscle fatigue. Despite not having completed his physical development, his club and international coaches squeezed every last drop out of him, and he paid the price. Now, though, he is further along physically. He has spent time in the gym and is on pace for a season like his first.
In LaLiga, he has played all 14 games, with an 86% game time percentage, and has started to look like a sharper shooter, with three goals to his name. At the World Cup, he was also key for Spain. He played all four matches, although La Roja could have done with him being more consistently at his best. And in the Champions League, we witnessed perhaps the clearest example of his youth affecting the Blaugrana. In Europe, as at the World Cup, we saw sublime glimpses from him, but he could not show the consistency needed to be the leader of a project. That should be absolutely no surprise to anyone: after all, we’re talking about a player who’s still only 20. But as Xavi told his interview with Barça TV: “He’s much better and more mature than I or [Andrés] Iniesta were at his age.”
Ronald Aráujo, 23
At 23, Ronald Araújo is the ‘veteran’ of this group. Together with Jules Koundé, Aráujo has been a certain starter in Xavi’s defence - but, like Koundé, he was struck down by injury at the worst possible time, causing him to miss the Champions League double-header with Inter Milan. That left a hole in the Barça backline that ought now to be fixed going into 2023. Araújo broke down at the beginning of October, and his recovery hasn’t been without controversy. Despite being mid-rehabilitation, Araújo was called up by Uruguay for the World Cup, and would probably have played in the last 16 had the South Americans made it out of their group. That would have severely tested relations between Barcelona and Uruguay, and would have been an exceedingly uncomfortable situation for the player himself.
Of Barça’s troop of youngsters, Araújo has played the least thus far this term, and in the remainder of the campaign, he’s expected to be the leader of the defence. Out of the team’s 14 in LaLiga games, he has appeared in just six. He hasn’t featured since matchday seven in the Spanish league, and has managed just the one game in the Champions League (Barça’s defeat to Bayern in Munich).
Éric García, 21; Ferran Torres, 20; Iñaki Peña, 23
Éric García began the season as Andreas Christensen’s central-defensive partner, but that was only because Koundé wasn’t available yet. As the season has progressed, he has steadily faded in prominence, albeit his performances have always been perfectly acceptable. He has been a victim of the stiff competition for places, as was the case at the World Cup: he returned from Qatar having failed to play a single minute for Spain.
Ferran Torres was hampered in the early-season period by an injury suffered in the summer, and found it tough to find his feet. His role in the team has also been affected by the competition provided by Ousmane Dembélé, who is a key player for Xavi, and Raphinha, who was signed in a big-money deal in July. Xavi insists that Torres has a big part to play in the second half of the season, and says people focus too heavily on his goal return rather than the all-round work he does for the team.
Of all the players on this list, Iñaki Peña is the man who’s going to need to be the most patient. He knows that, unless Marc-André ter Stegen gets injured, he’ll have to content himself with playing in the Copa del Rey. However, Barça see him as one for the future and plan to offer him a contract extension. His deal runs out this year and at his age he needs minutes, but he’s viewed within the club as the ideal successor to Ter Stegen. He has been pushing for this dream since he was 11 years old, and it looks like he’s going to stick it out at the Camp Nou.
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