The first game after an international break is rarely kind to Barcelona. With their superstar players travelling across the globe, the team can often come back lethargic and unable to meet their usual high standards. This was the case when Barça met Málaga at the weekend.
Luis Suárez was suspended and Andrés Iniesta, who was still suffering from a long term injury, was another absentee. Lionel Messi withdrew late through sickness and Ivan Rakitić and Jordi Alba both started on the bench meaning there was a high number of first team regulars not on the field.
With Málaga, there is rarely a tactical surprise when they visit the Camp Nou. They will sit deep and defend while looking to occasionally break on the counter attack. However, Barça coach Luis Enrique’s post-match interview revealed he expected different.
To break this organised defence, Enrique relied on the misfiring Paco Alcácer, Arda Turan and Neymar. The former has been perhaps the biggest disappointment of Barça’s summer transfer window so far. The ex-Valencia man was brought in to provide healthy completion but has been unable to find the net and has made no arguments that he should be starting over Suárez.
However, he is not the only new signing that has struggled to hit the ground running. André Gomes was a €35 million signing from Valencia but in his 12 appearances in a Barça shirt, he has contributed one assist and zero goals. His fee could eventually rise to €55 million so you expect the Barça board will be hoping for significantly more from their investment.
This is not to say all of the signings have been a disaster though. Denis Suárez started brightly while Samuel Umtiti has made a serious case that he should be featuring alongside Gerard Piqué but at this moment, there is a significant drop in quality when the club is forced to rely on their bench.
The main absence as always is Lionel Messi. When he is unavailable, the side lose an outlet. A player who get them out of a tricky situation. In arguably Barça’s two most disappointing matches this season, the 0-0 draw to Málaga and the 4-3 defeat to Celta, the Argentine was absent. Furthering this, Barça’s only home defeat of the season, a 2-1 loss to Alavés, Messi did not start.
Strength in depth has been an issue for a few seasons now and Barça have gone to great lengths to try and solve it. The last time Barça had significant back-up options was during the Guardiola days. The front three consisted of Messi, David Villa and Alexis Sánchez with Pedro able to step in at any time. You had players like Thiago to fill the boots of Xavi or Iniesta and Carles Puyol, Piqué and Javier Mascherano would rotate in the centre back position. It is in stark comparison now where a few injuries to key players can seem like a season defining event.
Compare this to the current league leaders, Real Madrid. While there is an argument over who has the stronger starting XI, there isn’t really one for who has the most strength in depth. They have the likes of Álvaro Morata, James Rodríguez, Raphaël Varane and Isco to come in should one of the starting XI be unavailable. These players are all internationals with a good reputation in world football and have been with the club for a few years now. An aspect which Barça just can’t boast with their current back-up options as this moment in time.
The bulk of the injuries are likely to come in the new year as the legs get more tired but if Barça continue on their current trajectory, they could very well be out of the title race by that time. Of course, any team will be affected by injuries to their best players but Barça’s B-team will need to significantly step up if they are going to retain their La Liga crown.