27 Jul First Clasico of 2023-24: Preseason states of Barca, Madrid
The new LaLiga season is still two weeks away, but the world’s biggest game is back early as Barcelona play Real Madrid in the latest U.S. edition of El Clasico at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday (coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+). The match is the highlight of this summer’s Soccer Champions Tour, which features the two Spanish giants alongside the Premier League‘s Manchester United and Arsenal, and Juventus and AC Milan of Serie A.
Barcelona’s preseason is finally underway after a gastroenteritis outbreak saw their opening game against Juventus cancelled, before a thrilling 5-3 defeat to Arsenal in Inglewood, California, on Wednesday. Real Madrid kicked off with a 3-2 comeback win against AC Milan at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on Sunday, followed by a 2-0 victory over Manchester United in Houston.
ESPN takes a look at the state of the two teams heading into this latest U.S. Clasico: their transfer business so far this summer, the work they still have to do, the teams’ major talking points, players to watch and Saturday’s likely starting elevens.
What you’ve missed
Last season’s LaLiga winners haven’t taken it easy this summer. Their desire to retain that trophy — and just as importantly, improve on a disappointing UEFA Champions League campaign that ended at the group stage — has seen Barca make significant improvements to the squad, even if their struggles to meet the league-imposed salary cap mean they haven’t yet been able to register any of their new signings.
The most exciting new face is Ilkay Gundogan. The midfielder, 32, was arguably the Premier League’s most influential player during last season’s title run-in with Manchester City. He’ll add experience, intelligence, leadership and goals to Barca’s midfield, and is already talking up his role as a mentor for Pedri and Gavi.
Departing captain Sergio Busquets has been replaced by Oriol Romeu, 31, a former La Masia graduate who joins after a quietly exceptional season at Girona, and defender Inigo Martinez, 32 — signed on a free transfer from Athletic Club — will compete with Ronald Araujo, Andreas Christensen, Jules Kounde and Eric Garcia at centre-back.
Madrid have been even busier than Barca, with a recognition that last year’s squad — which won the Copa del Rey, finished second in LaLiga and reached the Champions League semifinals — fell just short. Five players have joined, while a sixth, Paris Saint-Germain‘s Kylian Mbappé, still might. Others who contributed little, such as Eden Hazard and Mariano Diaz, have departed, freeing up space on the wage bill. The question mark is how the team copes without its centre-forward of more a decade, Karim Benzema.
Jude Bellingham is the headline arrival. Madrid paid a €103 million transfer fee to secure the England midfielder, 20, from Borussia Dortmund, and his performances against Milan and United have confirmed what we already suspected: that he’ll be one of LaLiga’s best players this season. The training ground tricks of playmaker Arda Guler, 19, have been a hit on social media, and now it’s time to see what he can deliver the pitch. A minor injury has kept him on the sidelines so far.
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Fran Garcia, 23, hasn’t caused as much excitement, but he was one of the league’s most dynamic full-backs at Rayo Vallecano. Spain international Joselu, 33, will provide a useful option off the bench — he scored a spectacular overhead kick against United — and Brahim Diaz, 23, will compete with Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior for a place in Madrid’s front two or three.
What they need to do
Manager Xavi Hernandez needs to decide on his first-choice midfield, and whether it consists of three players or four. With Romeu, Gundogan, Frenkie de Jong, Pedri and Gavi in the squad, at least one midfielder — and perhaps two — will have to miss out. Romeu, Gundogan and Pedri started against Arsenal on Wednesday, with De Jong replacing Romeu at halftime and Gavi missing out with back pain.
Last season, Xavi switched between the two systems, often picking Gavi in a more advanced role, wide in the front three. Romeu looks the most natural deep-lying midfielder, unless the coach feels that the time has come for the underrated De Jong to take on that role permanently.
Gundogan told ESPN this week that he would feel comfortable playing anywhere in a three-man midfield, including at pivot, while Pedri’s immediate challenge is be to stay fit, after hamstring problems restricted him to 32 league starts over the last two seasons.
Carlo Ancelotti has a midfield dilemma, too. The Italian coach has been open about trialling a midfield diamond in these preseason fixtures, arguing that “it’s better to adapt to the players” and a 4-4-2, not a 4-3-3, is the way to get the best out of this squad.
“[Bellingham] will be the No. 10,” Ancelotti said after the win over Milan. “If we play a 4-3-3, he’ll be on the right of the midfield three. For him, it’s best to be a No. 10, close to the box.”
It’s a radical shift for a team that has spent a decade — under Ancelotti, Zinedine Zidane and other coaches — lining up in variations of 4-3-3. It also requires an adjustment from forwards Vinicius and Rodrygo.
“It’s going well,” Ancelotti said, giving a progress report after beating United. “Vinicius likes to play a bit more on the inside. Rodrygo and Vinicius are very dangerous with the ball, and we can be more direct in transitions.”
Other major talking points
Barca’s next task is to get their accounts in order, to be able to register Gundogan, Romeu and Martinez before LaLiga begins. This is now an annual saga for the club, which was forced to sell off a series of sizeable assets last summer just to balance the books.
The latest installments due from one of those deals, the sale of 49% of its content creator Barca Studios, have been pushed back, meaning that there’s a shortfall for now. Club sources have told ESPN they’re confident of resolving the situation by bringing in additional income, to make sure those new signings are available for the start of the season.
Once again, just like in 2021 and 2022, it’s all about Mbappé. The forward is currently frozen out at PSG, training with the reserves, with the French club demanding that he agree to a contract extension or accept a departure now, rather than moving for free in 2024.
Madrid have been in regular contact with Mbappé in the past few months and know that he wants to join them, but they have also been treading extremely carefully, wary of being embarrassed as they were last summer. It’s down to PSG and Mbappé to make the first move, and time is running out.
Players to watch
A childhood Barca fan, Gundogan was determined to play for the club one day. Now, after seven years at what he calls “Pep [Guardiola]’s school” at Manchester City, he gets his chance. The midfielder is already raving about the “amazing” Xavi and the “huge potential” of his new teammates. A selfless team player, he’ll help them improve as well.
Real Madrid: Bellingham
All the Mbappé talk has overshadowed the fact that Madrid have already brought in one Galactico this summer. The midfielder settled in instantly, impressing with his maturity and lack of ego. It isn’t easy to slot in effortlessly alongside Modric, Kroos et al, but Bellingham looks right at home. His goal against United was a hint of what’s to come.
Predicted Starting XIs