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No Lewandowski, no problem: Barcelona wonderkids Pedri & Gavi are proving to be superstars in their own right

20:00 EAT 24/01/2023
Pedri Gavi Barcelona 2022-23
The young midfield pair have stepped up with goals and assists in recent weeks, taking their games to a new level in absence of Barca's star striker

Pedri seemed to see the goal developing before it happened. His midfield companion, Gavi, was scampering with the ball down the left-hand side of the box, so Pedri floated to the right. When Gavi crossed, he the ball around two defenders, swerving it to the back post, where it was swiftly turned in by an unmarked Pedri.

The goal that sealed Barcelona's 3-1 win over Real Madrid as they lifted the Spanish Super Cup in Riyadh was a thing of beauty, and a strike 18 months in the making.

Pedri and Gavi might only have a combined age of 38, but the duo have steadily become one of the best midfield duos in European football since the latter was introduced into the Barca line up at the start of last season.

Luis Enrique helped their relationship blossom by thrusting them into the Spain team at the earliest possible opportunity, and Barca are already reaping the rewards right at the time when they were looking for players to step up to keep their season track.

With Robert Lewandowski in the midst of a three-match La Liga suspension, Barca knew they were going to have to look elsewhere for their goals. Ansu Fati, Raphinha, Ferran Torres and Ousmane Dembele were all singled out as potential goal-getters, but only Dembele has been able to step up in any meaningful way.

Instead, it's been Gavi and Pedri who have truly picked up the slack, establishing themselves as not just promising wonderkids, but bonafide superstars in the process.

The pair haven't been prolific; this Barca team generally isn't. But they have steadily chipped away. Pedri scored the winner against Getafe on Sunday. Gavi grabbed two to go with his assist in the Spanish Super Cup final. In total, the duo have combined for seven direct goal contributions in Barca's last five games, a tidy return with their star striker out for a couple of them.

This is all of little surprise. When Barcelona signed Lewandowski last summer, they assumed they were investing in a Ballon D'or calibre player. And they were right: The Poland striker has scored 18 goals, and added four assists so far at Camp Nou. But his absence has revealed who the real stars of the show are now.

The Pedri story has been one of expectation and pressure from day one. Arriving from Las Palmas in the summer of 2020, he was thrust into Barca's line up at 17, replacing Ivan Rakitic in the midfield while Lionel Messi was still strutting his stuff, and was expected to give the team a lift during a morbid season.

And though Barca crashed out of the Champions League and finished third in La Liga, Pedri shone. He picked up a tidy return of goals and assists, showing few growing pains in his first season before going onto win countless awards over the next 12 months.

He's only improved from there too, meeting every single expectation thrown onto his shoulders, and developing into one of the world's best midfielders.

Now, Pedri is enjoying the best attacking season of his career so far. With four goals, he's just one short of his total from last year; a statistic no doubt helped by the fact that the Spain international is shooting far more often.

Last season, Pedri registered just 25 shots across all competitions, of which eight were on target. This season, he already has 21 and has put nine on target. "[Xavi] always tells me to get more into the box and shoot, to take risks, to dare one-on-one. I feel more and more comfortable up top," Pedri told SPORT last week.

As well as Xavi's advice, a revitalised Sergio Busquets has facilitated that improvement, giving Pedri more freedom to push forward. Despite not registering an assist proper, Pedri has tallied 4.0 expected assists in all competitions, per FBref, a credit to his ability to create chances (if perhaps a slight indictment of the finishing around him).

There's a pattern to things, too. His four goals have all been remarkably similar, nifty runs into the box, almost sneaking into the penalty area before a graceful finish.

Gavi rise has been similar in many ways. He arrived into the team a year later than Pedri, becoming a regular last season as he started 28 matches at just 16. He immediately contributed five assists, despite playing for a Barca team without a reliable striker. However, this season, and particularly in the past few weeks, his game has gone to a different level.

Gavi is a different type of player to Pedri. The scrappier of the two, Gavi isn't as smooth or refined on the ball. Pedri seems to slow things down while Gavi speeds everything up. But he's shown similar improvements in the attacking third, with five goal contributions in his last six games, highlighted by the Super Cup final, where he had a hand in all three goals.

"He possesses a contagious personality and has an innate capacity for leadership," Xavi said after the game. "It comes from inside, it's spectacular."

The crucial element to all of this is that neither player really needs to score goals to be considered an elite talent. Indeed, they are not expected to, not with the attacking players they're surrounded with. But when the team has needed them most, it's the young guns who have stepped up to the mark

It's been the story of their Barca careers so far, players thrown into the mix and required to plug holes. Gavi has spent time on the left wing. Pedri has played the No.8 role in a plethora of different ways. While Lewandowski will likely continue to get all the headlines when he returns to the scoresheet, the players immediately behind him are now the beating heart of Barcelona.