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Barcelona’s injury woes continue, and they have nobody to blame but themselves

Gavi is the latest youngster to be ruled out

FC Internazionale v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Upon seeing Gavi limp off what seemed like a serious knee injury in Spain’s recent Euro qualifier against Georgia, the initial sensations were that of shock and bitterness, but there was also an element of resignation felt amongst all Barca fans.

One of the club’s most important midfielders is out for the season with an ACL tear, likely to miss the beginning of next season, and realistically will take significant time after that to find the form that he had reached in the past few months. That he will even get back to his former self is also by no means a given, as Ansu Fati has proven in the past couple of years.

Of course, much of the blame was placed on Spain’s national team coach Luis de la Fuente, and rightly so. With Spain already having qualified for next summer’s Euros, and Gavi having played 90 minutes with his usual intensity just three days prior, it is ridiculous to suggest that he should be starting in a meaningless match. De La Fuente rested nine of the eleven starters from Thursday’s win against Cyprus. NINE. Yet Gavi is, as always, the first name on the team sheet.

Spain v Georgia: Group A - UEFA EURO 2024 European Qualifiers Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Now, Gavi will not even be available for the Euros. Whatever kind of “calculated risk” that De la Fuente thought he was taking backfired on him in a major way, and he is now going to face much deserved scrutiny. But the ones who need to be answering these very same questions represent Gavi’s club.

Gavi is a warrior; he runs like he has a third lung, he wins headers against 6-foot defenders, and he’ll dive in with his head in a 50-50 just to win the ball for his team. That’s just who he is, he’s Barca through and through, and he is the heart and soul of this football club. At just 19, he has become a true leader for Xavi’s squad. But he is just 19. Up until last year, Pedri was driving him to training. He is still a kid, and Barca has mismanaged him far worse than playing him in a meaningless qualifier.

He came into the senior team at the start of the 21-22 season, when he was 16. Demonstrating his quality immediately, he was thrown in at the deep end, and he was left there for good. He amassed over 3000 minutes over 47 games as a 16-year-old, which is completely unhealthy, no matter how fit he is. He’s not even 20 yet, nowhere near the peak of his athletic ability, and has played 111 official matches for the club, as well as 27 for Spain. What did anyone expect to happen?

Coaches, pundits and fans alike have used the term “unbreakable” with Gavi due to his passion, solidity and competitive spirit. But he’s not. At the end of the day, he’s someone that’s competing at very high levels week in, week out and needs to be protected far more than he has been. A teenage box-to-box midfielder simply cannot be Barcelona’s outfield player with the most minutes since his debut three years ago. And yet, he is.

It would’ve been reasonable to assume that Barca had learned from their failure with Pedri just one season prior. Another gem that played well beyond his years at 17, he featured in an astonishing 52 matches that season, the most out of anyone, including goalkeeper Marc-Andreter Stegen and Leo Messi.

At the end of the season, he started six games in the Euros for Spain, including three extra-time matches, and as if that wasn’t enough he was called up for the Olympics and played six matches for them as well. After a whopping 73 games, his summer break lasted a grand total of two weeks (during which he returned to training early) and it was straight back into the new season.

Shockingly enough, Pedri got injured not long after that, and again, and again, and his past few years, despite his overwhelming quality, have been overshadowed by extended spells on the sidelines. Looking back, the medical and backroom staff’s treatment of their first Golden Boy was laughable, bordering on negligent. Then he got injured, and they got to do it all over again with their next young talent.

Elche CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Santander Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

We have to assume that the logic with Gavi was a little sounder than “he hasn’t been injured yet, let’s keep trying it”, but that’s truly what it feels like now. Yes, an ACL tear is different to several niggling hamstring/quad injuries, and it does not imply that he is, or is going to become, injury-prone. But Pedri didn’t get injured at all in that first season either, despite playing those exorbitant minutes.

Injuries are not a mystical phenomenon, they are clearly explained by science, and continuously overloading muscles, joints and ligaments without allowing for proper recovery time is just an accident waiting to happen, and lo and behold, it happened for Gavi, just as it did for Pedri. Players are pushed and pushed until their bodies simply can’t take it anymore, and this ACL tear is just another reflection of that.

The story goes back even further, too, with the club’s horrible mishandling of Ansu Fati’s meniscus injury, turning several months into over a year and a superstar with the world at his feet into a shadow of his former self, forever chasing to get back to a level he is unfortunately very unlikely to achieve. The club rushed his initial return from his first operation, causing long-term complications that led to four surgeries in just six months, and he has not been the same since.

Footballers, especially youngsters hungry to prove themselves like Gavi, always want to play; that is a given. But that doesn’t mean they always should. As managers, directors and trainers, staff have a responsibility to protect their players, if not for their own health then for the future benefit of the club, both on and off the pitch.

Now, Gavi is out for the season; it’s a result of poor planning at the highest level, but it’s in the past and we can’t change it. What we can do, though, is learn from this colossal error take a much more measured approach with minutes to avoid these preventable injuries.

Yes, that means being in constant communication with the national teams and understanding when players should be resting during international breaks. De la Fuente overuses Blaugrana youngsters for fun, as did Luis Enrique before him, and the club that pays their salary needs to have an important say in what is happening to their squad.

But it also means week in, week out, clubs have a responsibility to manage fitness. As football’s governing bodies continue to add matches and tournaments in the hope of increasing revenue without considering player safety, Barca need to be more wary than ever of what they can handle.

The temptation now that Gavi is out will be to max out Pedri, another midfielder who is a difference-maker in this team. This should not happen under any circumstances, as he is also just returning from injury, and much like Frenkie de Jong, needs his minutes carefully tracked. If Barca ends up losing both for an extended period, it’s hard to imagine this season being a positive one.

Another crucial point to take from this is the progress of Lamine Yamal, yet another 16-year-old who if it’s possible, looks even better than Ansu did when he was breaking every age record known to man. We have a phenom on our hands, plain and simple, but there’s been plenty of tremendously talented youngsters whose careers have stalled, and eventually petered out.

Rayo Vallecano v FC Barcelona - LaLiga EA Sports Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

Injuries are a big part of that. Overhyping them is also a big part of that. Regulating the pressure they face, as well as the minutes they play, is paramount towards ensuring players can realize their potential.

Yamal should not be starting three times in a week. Period. Managers, partly due to the pressure they face from fans to deliver results every single game, will often ignore these safeguards that serve to keep players fit and healthy, but the long-term advantage is so much more important, especially at such a young age.

Had Ansu been allowed to naturally recover from his first surgery, the situation might’ve been entirely different, and now he’s not even playing for Barca anymore when it seemed like we’d have a fixture in our starting lineup for 15 years.

Had Gavi played less minutes this season, would he still have torn his ACL? It’s difficult to say, but if Barca had taken a more active role in managing his minutes, he wouldn’t have been playing against Georgia in the first place. This theme of overusing players until they finally crack simply must stop. It’s not good for the player, the club, the national team: anyone.

Words like “machine” and “robot” are thrown around when lauding those that are very fit, but in the end they are a disservice to us all, because it provides an excuse to spread them way too thin, and we have been witnessing the results in recent years.

It remains to be seen how Gavi returns from this injury; with his mentality, you can’t count against him being all the stronger for it. Of course, his manager, one of the greatest midfielders of all time, also had to overcome an ACL injury in his early years.

Regardless, how many is it going to take until we say enough? We are blessed with La Masia and are lucky enough to see generational talents produced almost annually. When do we start prioritizing their protection?

Lamine is 16. Gavi is 19. Pedri, Balde and Fermin are 20. All of them are already fully integrated in both Barcelona and La Roja. These players, whether they may ask for it or not, need the club’s help, and it starts now: there’s no excuses anymore.

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