After taking a single point from both fixtures against Malaga last season, Barcelona managed to overcome their opponents in a 1-0 win.
Barcelona lined up in an expected 4-3-3. Dani Alves and Gerard Pique were the notable absentees in defense.
It was a typical encounter between a possession team and one looking to counter attack. Barcelona enjoyed the lion’s share of the ball, while Malaga looked to deal damage on the counter.
The key feature of this match was Malaga’s defending. The Andalucian outfit had been able to frustrate Messi, Neymar and Suarez during previous fixtures and did so again. While Malaga’s counterattack would be fun to watch, the real contest was between Barcelona’s entire attacking threat and Malaga’s well drilled defense.
Malaga Extremely Narrow
We’ve seen Atletico Madrid play a narrow, flat 4-4-2 to blunt Barcelona in the past (although it was less effective going forward against a revamped Barcelona last season). Like in the past, coach Javi Garcia just about replicated Diego Simeone’s approach, and one could say that he took it to the next level.
Garcia’s side adopted an extremely narrow pressing game, only shifting when there was a direct threat on the touchline. There were times when Messi and Neymar stood alone out wide as Malaga cramped the center of the pitch.
While one could argue that Malaga risked being caught between the lines, their approach worked perrfectly. For the majority of the match Barcelona was restricted to half-chances and often got crowded out.
Alves Absence Leaves Barcelona Short on Incision
With all due to respect to his replacement Sergio Roberto, he was unable to provide the same creativity as his Brazilian teammate. Alves is known for his performances in the opposing half, especially in games like this. He was sorely missed.
Roberto’s attacking dashboard shows his effort. He tried, but wasn’t enough.
Alves’ absence also left Lionel Messi relatively isolated on the right flank. Usually the duo tend to dominate their flank (similar to Ronaldo and Marcelo), but Alves’ absence robbed Messi of a player who often warrants some defensive attention. Malaga were thus given more leeway, as Miguel torres often had a midfielder hunting the Argentine with him.
The first half in particular saw this problem exacerbated. Messi sought his teammates on the left more often than not.
Ivan Rakitic’s off-day also left Barcelona light at the right. Messi was often left alone on the right flank, and he was forced to drift infield more often.
Alba-Iniesta-Neymar Influence Key
It was a day crying out for a player who could take the reins in midfield. With his midfield (and striking partners) struggling, there were times when Iniesta looked like the only player who could unlock the defense. His dribbling that too. At times Iniesta linked up well with Jordi Alba and Neymar, with Barcelona’s left side looking dangerous more often than not.
Alba’s total passes to Neymar and Iniesta were also the most frequent pass combinations of the match.
But this was where Malaga’s crowding of the center made a big difference. Messi looked to drift centrally to recieve some support, lobbing the ball cross field to Neymar or Iniesta. But the Andalucians either blocked out an impending cross or regained the ball in the center. Of course, the match-winning goal was also a result of a cross from Barcelona’s left side of attack.
Kudos to Javi Garcia’s side for forcing Barcelona into such a position. Messi was given time on the ball on the right, which usually ended in a half chance or clearance. Otherwise, Messi drifted into the center and closer to the Iniesta-Neymar-Alba trio on the left and found Malaga’s well drilled midfield and defense hold up through crowding. The only time Barcelona looked more incisive was when Messi had limited influence, which the Argentine imself prevented from happening.
One can’t read too deep into that statement though, Dani Alves’s return will solve that issue. The case for depth in the squad is another matter entirely.
Neymar Switching Sides?
Rather than looking to completely exploit their left field aggression, Barcelona then understandably attempted to free up some space for Messi. Especially after half time. Neymar also looked to join in, switching sides on a few occasions. Neymar passing to Messi? The third most frequent pass combination of the match.
They ultimately added to the half-chances that were being created. Neymar’s rustiness showed in the final third.
Neymar’s rustiness prevented this move from working out as desired in the final third.
Messi’s influence eventually did increase, as Malaga tired and Barcelona’s solution to his isolation worked, although it hurt their incisiveness. The introduction of Rafinha didn’t hurt either.
Not the most intricate or incisive display from Barcelona, but Thomas Vermaelen’s imposing performance was likely the difference between defeat by counter-attack and victory.
Did Barcelona merit the win? The Catalans were reduced to over-the-top balls and desperate crosses for the majority of the game, and even after growing into the game in the second half they struggled to create clean chances. Malaga certainly defended well. Their organization was impressive, and they likely deserved slightly better than the result showed.