How the Search for Midfield Balance could shape next season’s Title Race

Ilkay Gundogan

From Pedri, Gavi, Gündoğan and De Jong to Camavinga, Valverde, Kroos, Modric and Bellingham, the top end of LaLiga will be stacked full of midfield talent when the new 2023/24 season kicks off. However with new signings come new conundrums for the bosses of Barcelona and Real Madrid as Xavi and Carlo Ancelotti seek to find the best way to fit their many different pieces together.

The search for midfield balance is likely to be a major factor in the tussle for superiority at the top, certainly in the opening weeks and months of the 2023/24 season. The team which finds it first, will be in a strong position to set the early pace and potentially open up an advantage at the top.

As it stands, Real Madrid are the slight favourites with betting companies ahead of defending champions Barcelona to win LaLiga 2023/24. However as is invariably the case in pre-season, it’s hard to split the two and there is of course still time for some significant transfer business to tilt the scales one way or another.

Casemiro & Busquets shaped holes

To some extent, Real Madird and Barcelona have the same problem. For all their respective midfield riches, there is currently a lack of a truly convincing, natural option in the holding role.

Barcelona will be heading into a LaLiga campaign without Sergio Busquets for the first time in more than fifteen years. Even well into his 30’s, Busquets remained a key figure for Barça, a virtually unchallenged pick in central midfield throughout his long career at Camp Nou.

Last season, his experience and composure helped provide the base from which Xavi’s team launched attacks and Busquets’ presence complemented well the younger, fresher legs of Barça’s next generation of midfield talent.

Over in Madrid, we’re now approaching a year without Casemiro. While Real Madrid’s failure to win either LaLiga or the Champions League last season cannot solely be attributed to the absence of the Brazilian, it’s not hard to pinpoint key moments and matches where he may have made a difference.

The lack of obvious options in the transfer market, suggests this is an issue that may continue to be a possible weak point in the armoury of both teams for some time to come. In terms of the best upcoming holding midfielders in LaLiga, Martín Zubimendi is perhaps the standout option, although with Real Sociedad having just qualified for the Champions League, the Basque side are in no rush to cash in on the 24 year old.

Somewhat ironically, the one current Spanish player who may truly be described as “world class” is a holding midfielder, in the shape of Manchester City’s Rodri Hernández. It’s safe to assume he won’t be rocking up in Barcelona or Madrid any time soon.

With N’Golo Kanté having already moved to Saudi Arabia this summer and Joshua Kimmich likely to be tough to prize away from Munich, certainly at a time when funds are limited, Barça may be forced to ultimately settle for a decidedly lesser option in their quest for a holding midfielder. 

Meanwhile Real Madrid are likely to try to find solutions within their existing cast of midfielders who now number seven in total following the signing of Jude Bellingham and renewals for the likes of Dani Ceballos, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.

Is seven too many at Real Madrid?

In theory, Real Madrid do have options when it comes to the deep midfield role. However there is still no entirely natural heir to Casemiro with the likes of Eduardo Camavinga and Aurélien Tchouaméni both keen to and capable of advancing much further forwards to influence things in the final third. Tchouaméni is the most natural “pivot” in the senior squad but hasn’t done quite enough yet to suggest he’s going to be an integral part of Real Madrid’s first team for many years to come.

The addition of Bellingham from Borussia Dortmund is undoubtedly a coup in terms of Real Madrid’s ability to bring in another of the game’s truly elite young players. However the English international’s arrival adds yet one more piece to an area of the pitch where Los Blancos are already strong.

While it’s certainly possible that Camavinga will continue to be deployed as a left-back and Fede Valverde on the right wing, even that’d still leave Modric, Kroos, Bellingham, Tchouaméni and Ceballos fighting for three positions. It’ll be some juggling act required from Carlo Ancelotti as he aims to keep players happy while managing the ongoing midfield transition away from club legends towards the younger players.

Karim Benzema’s surprise departure and the never-ending Kylian Mbappe transfer saga adds another dimension that makes it hard to second guess how Carlo Ancelotti may choose to set his team up in the 2023/24 season with a shift away from his typical 4-3-3 possible.

On the surface, seven midfielders feels like at least one too many, certainly given the calibre of those players. While a surprise late departure, as occurred last August with Casemiro, cannot be entirely ruled out, this may be Ancelotti’s toughest season across his two spells as Real Madrid boss when it comes to finding the right balance and combination of players in the middle of the park.

How will Gündoğan fit in at Barcelona?

Given their continued financial restraints, the signing of İlkay Gündoğan from Manchester City on a free transfer, can only really be seen as a smart piece of business from Barcelona. They are getting an experienced international, a big performer and a player who is still operating at a very high level having helped City win the Champions League only last month.

What he is not, is a like-for-like replacement for Busquets. To tell Gündoğan to simply sit deep would be a big waste of his talents with the German boasting an impressive goalscoring record from midfield, highlighted frequently at the end of last season with braces against Leeds and Everton in the Premier League, as well as in the FA Cup Final against Manchester United.

That added goal threat from deep could be very welcome for a Barcelona side that at times struggled for goals, netting only 70 times in LaLiga last term, their worst return in a title winning season since 1984/85.

Much like his opposite number in Madrid, Xavi will be heading into pre-season with a number of unknowns that will make it difficult for him to plan. The addition of a genuine holding midfielder of sufficient quality, would allow the Barça boss to adopt a similar 4-3-3 system again with the likes of Frenkie de Jong, Pedri and Gündoğan competing for the places either side of the holding midfielder while Gavi may again end up frequently operating on the left of a front three.

However, the difficulties that Barcelona are having in the market for that player could push things more in the direction of a double pivot. That would most likely consist of De Jong and Gündoğan sharing responsibilities as the deep-lying midfielders with Pedri allowed a lot more freedom to get forward and support Robert Lewandowski in attack.


Featured image of İlkay Gündoğan via Steffen Prößdorf, CC BY-SA 4.0

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About Mark Sochon 2054 Articles
Mark is a freelance writer based in Madrid. He has been writing about Spanish football since 2014 and regularly attends and covers matches across Spain. His work has also been published by various newspapers and websites including These Football Times, World Soccer and Guardian Sport. Available for freelance work: marksochon (at) hotmail.co.uk