Evolution in the engine room: the midfield battle between Real Madrid and Barcelona

by Charlie Coffey

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

The midfields of both Real Madrid and Barcelona are beginning to resemble Japanese trains at rush hour. If Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola continue to pack more and more players in, it is likely they will struggle to keep each one happy and in form. Something has to give. So who will survive the cull, and who will earn starting midfield berths in 2011-12?


As well as Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Barcelona also have Seydou Keita and Javier Mascherano as cover, Thiago Alcantara to be promoted to the first team after being the stand-out player of the European under 21 championships, and the now probable signing of Cesc Fabregas. Ibrahim Affelay can also play in a central attacking midfield role.

The ideal for any club is to have two players for each position, meaning a maximum of six players from those eight. Mascherano, despite having captained Argentina, has struggled to look at home with Barca’s tici-taca style. Cumbersome even. He might well go if the price is right. Although Manchester United are rumoured to be interested in Thiago, it is unlikely Barca would sell a player they have invested so much time in coaching. Having lost and eventually resigning Gerard Pique and now probably Fabregas at a cost, Barca would be loath to sell Thiago before he has reached his potential.

Thiago’s performances in Denmark demonstrated his obviously talent hewn in the now familiar Masia playing style. Of the present first-team regulars he is most reminiscent of Iniesta: playing further up the pitch with the ability to both pass and dribble around players at will.

The only scenario in which Thiago could conceivably leave is if Barca needed the cash from a silly-money bid to finance deals for Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez, which would likely cost a combined fee of £70m. As we all now know Barca’s bank statements are not as glowing as their performances on the pitch, a situation that recently forced them to sign a shirt sponsorship deal for the first time in their history.

Many have questioned where Fabregas would fit into Barca’s midfield, but Fabregas is perhaps the only midfielder who could prompt realignment in the existing trio of Catalan star. He is a Masia graduate with more assists than any other player in Europe’s top five domestic leagues over the past three seasons despite having not having tasted silverware. Xavi can play further back; Iniesta further forward, but, failing that, we saw in the World Cup final that Fabregas can also make a huge impact from the bench.

Real Madrid

Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid need more options due to their five-man midfield, but even before the recent additions of Nuri Sahin (from Borussia Dortmund, 10m Euros) and Hamit Altintop (from Bayern Munich, free transfer), they had ten first team midfielders.

Of those ten the likes of Sergio Canales and Pedro Leon have found their first team chances limited, which will obviously have a detrimental impact on their development. Mourinho hit out at the Madrid press when asked about his exclusion from the team following some exciting displays. The manager might prefer Di Maria because of the width and balance his left foot offers with Cristiano Ronaldo on the opposite flank, and also his defensive and tactical discipline. Perhaps he sees Leon and Ronaldo as too attacking as a pairing.

If this is the case then Leon must move on as he will not displace Ronaldo. At 20, Canales can afford to be a little more patient but he may also look elsewhere unless he is given significantly more playing time next season. That both players have been used so sparingly is surprising as they were both Mourinho signings.

One player who looks certain to move on is Lassana Diarra. Although Diarra was impressive against Barcelona, which is perhaps the ultimate test for a defensive midfielder in the modern game, he is always going to play second fiddle to Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira. His transfer history shows that he will not accept a place on the bench for long: He was content to move to Portsmouth for regular first-team football after being denied a regular start at Arsenal or Chelsea.

Diarra’s propensity to run with the ball and over-complicate matters plays against him. He often has the ability to do this, but the no-nonsense approach and superior passing range of Alonso and Khedira as a partnership allows the attacking three to weave their magic. Diarra arrived for 20 million Euros but Real might accept half that fee this summer.

Another 20 million Euro signing, Fernando Gago, will also want a move. Since his move from Boca Juniors he has failed to live up to the weight of expectation of early comparisons to Fernando Redondo. In his defence he has struggled with injuries that forced him to miss over 100 days of a season in which he played under 100 minutes of La Liga football, and so has not had enough opportunity to impress. There is little chance he will now, with his agent already having touted him to Manchester City and Liverpool.

It seems Sahin will be an understudy to Mesut Ozil, and will replace Kaka as Real’s second choice central attacking midfielder despite signs at the end of last season that the former World Player of the Year was rediscovering form after long-term injury. Real now have three Teutonic Turks in midfield with the versatile Altintop likely to provide cover, primarily in defensive midfield: a free transfer to replace Gago and Diarra who could fetch up to £25m between them. Decent business and a frugal decision that belies Real’s lavish past.

Sahin’s capture was also an excellent piece of business by Madrid, who swept in to pick up the 22-year-old Bundesliga player of the season for just 10 million Euros before the cash hawks of Chelsea or Man City had awoken. Ozil is unplayable on form but was slightly inconsistent at times last season and a lack of stamina can often see him tire around the 70 minute mark – something he will have to work on if he is to realise his full potential.

So, although there may be a shake-up for Madrid’s midfield squad, the starting five are likely to stay the same. Although each player performed very well in Mourinho’s first season in charge, they still lost out to and were comprehensively out-passed by Barcelona, whose starting midfield can be improved with Fabregas. Is Mourinho looking at a long-term midfield gardening project to rival the blossoming midfield at Barca? Does such a coach exist in the modern game (apart from one such as Guardiola who has until now been a one-club man)? So far in Mourinho’s career he has been used to signing players at their peak to win trophies as quickly as possible.

The Blanco youngsters Canales, Khedira, Sahin and Ozil have the potential to at least compete with Barcelona in years to come; but they need to play together as much as possible while they are still developing. Last season’s glut of Clasicos demonstrated that the existing five men of Real’s midfield are some way Barcelona’s. If Mourinho doesn’t nurture the young passengers of his midfield train, Barcelona’s could pull even further away into the distance.

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  • Babalola William

    As you said that Mourinho buys players at their peak, you’re right because they can’t wait any more without winning major trophy. This is the difference between the two clubs. Barcelona believe in young ones while Madrid do not.

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