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Barcelona 0-1 Málaga: Tactical Review

Dani Alves' mistake coupled with a terrible attacking display cost Barça the game on Saturday afternoon, as Málaga left the Camp Nou with all three points for the first time since November 1999.

David Ramos/Getty Images

Barça’s second home league defeat of the season arrived in miserable fashion courtesy of Javi Gracia’s Málaga. The hosts were outfought, out-thought and outgunned and there was no doubt at all that the visitors deserved their victory. Luis Enrique will inevitably take harsh criticism for the team’s complacent and gutless display but immense credit should go to Málaga for the quality of their performance. For the second time this season, Gracia’s side completely outplayed Barça and not many managers will ever be able to say they’ve done that.

Málaga’s victory was as surprising as it was deserved. They came to Camp Nou having won only one league game since December, while Barça were in the form of their lives. In the last game Luis Enrique equalled Pep Guardiola’s record for most consecutive wins as Barça manager and another one was expected. However, based on the match that followed, one would have said that the visitors were the form side and the hosts the strugglers.

Barça started the game with their familiar 4-3-3 formation with yet another heavily rotated starting eleven. Gerard Piqué and Jérémy Mathieu started in the centre of defence, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba replaced Martín Montoya and Adriano at full-back and Rafinha and Andrés Iniesta came in for Ivan Rakitić and Xavi Hernández. Lionel Messi and Neymar played on the flanks, while Luis Suárez replaced Pedro as the central striker. It was very close to being Barça’s strongest eleven on paper, though the midfield pairing of Iniesta and Rafinha didn’t inspire a great deal of confidence.

Málaga were without Nordin Amrabat and Ignacio Camacho, both suspended, which meant that Javi Guerra made his fourth start of the season up front and Recio his eighth in midfield. The absence of two key players could have meant that their collective understanding was fatally affected, but Gracia had evidently prepared his starting eleven thoroughly and they looked comfortable throughout.

Their tactics were similar to most visiting sides’ at Camp Nou: they set up with a high-line and kept a compact, rigid unit assembled in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 formation in the centre of the pitch. Unlike Levante, who started with a similar setup last weekend, Málaga showed strong concentration and had the physical intensity and desire to make this system work. Their quite astounding tackles map shows just how much work they put into stopping Barça, while Barça's pass map shows just how effectively Málaga shut them down - note how few passes were made in and around the penalty area.



As well as being extremely well organised defensively, they offered a potent threat on the counter, on several occasions getting bodies forward to support rapid advances and leaving Barça’s midfield for dead. They could easily have scored more than one goal had they made better decisions in the final third.


Much like September’s 0-0 at La Rosaleda, Málaga’s organisation and tenacity made them extremely formidable and Barça’s uncoordinated attacks exacerbated their inability to get the ball to their star players in good situations. What began as a classic game of attack versus defence in which Barça tried to break down an opponent whose only aim was to stop Barça scoring became a defensive mauling in which Suárez, Messi and Neymar were virtually bullied out of the game.

Even though Barça dominated possession, it was really the visitors who controlled the first half, aggressively forcing Barça to play into wide areas from which they couldn’t create goalscoring opportunities. Messi in particular was guilty of crossing the ball hopefully into central zones in which Málaga had numerical, physical and mental superiority. Time and time again he took the ball wide on the right, cut inside and whipped it towards the back post, only to see one of the opposition back four effortlessly head it clear.


Such was the lethargy and predictability of Barça’s build-up play, a palpable feeling developed that Luis Enrique’s men weren’t 100% switched on. At times it looked like they almost expected Málaga to roll over and present them with three points. It was no surprise therefore when Carlos Kameni’s aggressive catch was followed by a swift punt downfield that caught Alves by surprise, suckering the Brazilian into underhitting his backpass and inadvertently setting up Juanmi’s winning goal.

Though it’s tempting to be totally scathing, the reality is that Barça didn’t play that badly, at least not in the first half. They were certainly smarter than they were in the last league game between these sides: instead of moving the ball slowly and never changing the angle of attack, as they did in September, they played lots of crossfield passes, switching play constantly to give Messi and Neymar space in which to play, but Málaga were ready. No matter where Messi and Neymar got the ball, it was pretty much impossible for them to get anywhere near the goal.



With the centre closed off and Messi and Neymar unable to influence proceedings, Barça seemed to run out of ideas pretty quickly. They turned to Plan B, which was for everyone to focus on raining down a barrage of crosses in Kameni’s box. It was worth trying to break Málaga down with an aerial assault for a while – it was a lot easier to succeed that way than it was to walk the ball into the net – but this strategy was ultimately even more futile.

In total, Barça attempted 48 crosses but only 5 found an attacker, half as many as centre-back Marcos Angeleri headed clear alone. The visitors always had many more players in the areas into which crosses were sent, greater height throughout the team and a level of organisation that meant that someone was always in position to head the ball away. After 20 minutes of the match it was obvious that Barça would never score from a cross, but they never stopped trying and never created anything.


There was no change in the first twenty or so minutes of the second half began, with Barça continually trying and failing to break down the amassed Málaga defence. The centre of the pitch remained completely impassable and attacks down the flanks ended with crosses that were easily repelled. Suárez was suffocated, Iniesta and Rafinha ineffectual and Messi and Neymar totally peripheral, crowded out of the game and repeatedly made to play backwards by heavy Málaga pressure.


If any side looked likely to score the second goal of the game, it was Málaga. They had several half-chances on the counter but wasted them all. The best fell to Samu Castillejo, who had led a three-versus-two charge deep into Barça’s half, but when the time came to slip a colleague through on goal he chose to go it alone and blazed high and wide.

On the hour mark, Luis Enrique set about fixing the clear deficiencies with Barça’s eleven. First, Ivan Rakitić replaced Rafinha, who hadn’t looked at home on the right side of the midfield triangle at any point in the match. Then Pedro replaced Iniesta, who had also made next to no impact on the game. This change meant that Messi moved into the centre, which in turn meant that the ball reached him sooner and gave him more control over the game. Finally, Dani Alves came off for Javier Mascherano, which meant Barça switched to 3-3-1-3 for the last 17 minutes.

Mascherano, Piqué and Mathieu formed a back three, with Busquets at pivote and Rakitić slightly ahead and drifting right. Pedro and Jordi Alba played as wing-backs, Messi as the ten and Pedro, Suárez and Neymar up front. It wasn’t an awful idea in abstract, but given that this system has only been used once this season, and didn’t fully convince on that occasion, relying on it to save a game against a side as organised and buoyant as Málaga was optimistic at best.

Although Messi did exert slightly greater control over proceedings from his central berth, he couldn’t connect with his teammates or exploit space close to the goal to score himself. Málaga always made sure that he stayed as far from their goal as possible and flooded the area close to their goal with bodies to prevent him finding a way through. When the 3-3-1-3 committed even more Barça bodies into the final third, the pitch became extremely crowded, making Messi’s job even harder.


Having shut Barça out for 80 minutes, Málaga shut the game down for the last ten. The Camp Nou crowd was becoming increasingly incensed with Suárez for constantly being caught offside and the referee for giving free-kicks to the visitors, and Gracia’s team very sensibly kept the ball dead for as long as possible and allowed Barça’s fans’ anger to transmit to the players. Before long they too had lost their heads: Piqué and Alba were booked for arguing with the referee and Neymar saw yellow for an ugly hack.

Gracia used his last two substitutions to slow the game down even further and to introduce fresh legs up-front, allowing his team to keep the ball in Barça’s half for short but very useful spells that relieved pressure on the defence. That said, they weren’t under any more pressure than at any other point in the game. Barça couldn’t exactly mount an onslaught when their opponents had already been voluntarily camped near their own box for the whole match. They just kept playing up to the edge of the box and swinging crosses in and Málaga kept dealing with them.

Eventually, the final whistle put Barça out of their misery. It was an ignominious end to a thoroughly chastening afternoon – one which torpedoed talk of a revival ahead of the Manchester City game and also gave Real Madrid a huge advantage in the title race. Los Merengues must be huge favourites to stroll to La Liga victory now.

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