Salt and pepper, knife and fork, Xavi and Iniesta. The diminutive midfielders were the symbols of Spain’s extraordinary success between 2008 and 2012, when the former weaklings of international football won two European Championships and a World Cup.
12 years after their success in South Africa, Spain have another pair of technically gifted midfield maestros looking to lead the team to glory.
Given the country’s extraordinary strength deep in the center of the park – Rodri will be on the bench when Spain take on Costa Rica on Wednesday, while Thiago Alcântara wasn’t even part of the squad – it says a lot that Pedri and Gavi should start in Qatar. What’s more, Spain’s chances of success depend heavily on Barcelona’s teenage duo.
Few teams at this World Cup will have an on-pitch identity as clearly defined as Spain’s. Luis Enrique’s team will press high on the field, defend with a high line and dominate possession. Their approach game will invariably be pleasing to the eye, though they are sometimes accused of “overdoing it” and failing to pull off a relentless streak in the final third.
Pedri and Gavi will certainly help Spain keep the ball away from their opponents, a tactic that has helped La Roja keep a clean sheet in all of their qualifiers at Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.
Of the midfielders who have started at least half of La Liga games this season, only Nemanja Gudelj (91.9%), Fran Beltran (92.4%), Aurelien Tchouameni (93.2%), Axel Witsel (93, 6%) and Toni Kroos (94.6%) have a better pass rate than Pedri (91.1%). But all five of these players are positioned in deeper midfield positions than Pedri, who is not a containment player.
Although he is adept at keeping possession, the 19-year-old is by no means risk averse. Using the same criteria as above, his 1.8 key passes per 90 minutes put him fifth in La Liga for central midfielders.
The comparison is imperfect, but Pedri’s dribbling and possession of the ball in tight areas make him more Iniesta than Xavi. At 2.2 dribbles per 90, Pedri is again among the top five midfielders in La Liga. His ability to progress with the ball, whether with a pass or a dribble, will help inject pace into Spain’s game when needed. Unusually for someone so young, Pedri’s tactical understanding means he knows when to speed things up and when to slow them down.
When he made his debut last October, aged 17 years and 62 days, Gavi became the youngest player in Spain’s history. Since then, he has made 12 caps for his country’s senior team – more than at under-16 and under-18 levels combined. “It’s very difficult not to fall in love with him,” said Luis Enrique in June.
At 90.6%, Gavi’s pass success rate for Barcelona this season is slightly lower than Pedri’s, but he marginally outperforms his teammate at 1.9 key passes per 90. Both players are adept at finding space between the lines, and Luis Enrique will encourage them to do so simultaneously in an attempt to break through the defensive structure of their opponents in Qatar.
Vicente del Bosque has tried to field as many technical midfielders as possible in his Spain XI, often fielding the likes of Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas as part of an attacking trio. Gavi and Pedri are versatile enough to do the same should Enrique need it. In a tough knockout game, the coach might consider deploying one of these further up and bringing Rodri or Koke into the engine room.
Spain delved into self-parody at the World Cup four years ago, seemingly keeping possession for its own good against Russia before losing the round of 16 on penalties.
The presence alongside Pedri and Gavi this time means that a repeat is unlikely. Dynamic, energetic and tenacious, they tend to look forward rather than sideways and will not be content to keep the ball unless the scoreline suits their side.
“Hopefully we can be a duo like Xavi and Iniesta but it will be difficult to repeat what they did,” Pedri said in March. “I have a special relationship with [Gavi] and I really appreciate him, he has great potential.”
If teenagers can inspire Spain to glory this winter, the comparisons will only grow. But Pedri and Gavi are determined to write their own stories, and Qatar could be the stage for that.