Malaga 0, Barça 0, aka “Enrique era over before it started?”


A football game is in every way, shape and form, about time. It starts with the first kick of the ball. Great players seem to compress and expand it — depending on whether you are the tormented or tormentor — it as their skills play with chronology. It slows when your team is hanging on, speeds up when your team is losing. And when you face an opponent such as Barça faced in Malaga, there is never enough time just as there is too damned much of it.

The team drew, for the season’s first “negative” result. A sixth clean sheet fell by the wayside, an accomplishment more to be scorned than celebrated, perhaps because culers realize that the myth of a poor defense was precisely that, a macguffin crafted to obfuscate reality: against certain systems at certain times, the magical ones can’t put the ball in the opponent net.

Defense is easy. None of them are revered, iconic, none of them sparked a baby boom in the aftermath of a goal scored. So a problem that isn’t a problem becomes a problem, until the real problem smacks us in the face once again. Five goals short last season, one goal short on Wednesday. The defense didn’t let anything happen, so what was up with the offense?

Malaga got in its face, is what happened. Just as when Weligton grabbed Messi’s face and shoved him to the ground, adding a high attack to the low one back when he stepped on Messi’s leg, Malaga stood there and dared Barça to do something. It was clear they were playing for the point that they started the day with, an attack that was an attack mostly in name, because attacking wasn’t the point. Stopping Barça from scoring was.


There have been many tactical breakdowns of what happened, eminently logical dissections of formations, tactics, what Malaga did right and what Barça did wrong. It’s very difficult to argue with any of them, really. They are all right even as for me, they all miss the point.

Barça “lost” because the team was toast. Referees, a pitch that was pretty much green-colored sand, this player, that player, Douglas isn’t Alves, shoulda bought Cuadrado, etc, etc. But when an entire team fails in such a desultory fashion, for me it’s something more.

When I am tired, I start dropping stuff. Then my concentration goes and I miss things in stories that I usually catch. Tired players can’t concentrate, so things that become second nature are suddenly a struggle. Watch Iniesta wrestle with a pass and tell me that team was fresh. The ball moved slow. The players moved slow. Everything was labored. That’s what happens when you’re tired.

History and present

Luis Enrique took over the team from Tata Martino, and the work began. Legend was that training under Martino was little more than parlor games and kickabouts, followed by a run for ice cream. Word got out that the training pitch had to be replaced, and culers stuck out their chests with the knowledge that Enrique is working them so hard he’s wearing out the practice field. Get some!

So what if … maybe, just maybe … the team was just tired. Bad touches, poor control, players who were previously unmarkable are suddenly easily controlled by their inferiors, from top to bottom. Stagnant runs, midfielder malaise, winger drabness as a collection of 10 outfield players played like a bunch of dudes who had been worked like dogs and were now evincing the effects of those exertions.

Did Malaga have an effect on the result? You bet. They played their asses off, even as Barça made it easy for them by being collective crap. The defense looked good, but it didn’t really have that much to do. Bravo made a save that looked cool but really wasn’t all that difficult for a keeper of his caliber. And Malaga, after all, was attacking mostly because they were stuck with the ball and figured “Hey, maybe we can steal something.” But really, Malaga was about defending the point, which they did. They celebrated, their fans crowed and reality beckoned to anyone clear-eyed enough to listen.

The bus is reality. Every opponent that Barça has played this season has been defensive. Messi isn’t going to beat us, they aren’t going to beat us. Not here, not today. And yet, for 5 previous times, Barça did exactly that, combining movement, passing and when necessary individual brilliance to get it done, to be perfect until the trip to Malaga: 5 wins, 5 clean sheets.

Culers were crowing as vindication beckoned in the knockout start of Enrique and his charges, as people conveniently forgot that Martino’s Barça made history up until the break, with a eye-goggling start.

And even now, after just one result that really wasn’t all that bad given how the team looked and how Malaga looked, the familiar refrain can be heard in the distance: Aren’t we allowed to criticize Enrique and the team? Substitute Vilanova and Martino for Enrique and it all starts to sound the same in the world of zero allowance, zero tolerance. Winning is an expectation, not a joy, not the weird, improbable thing that it really is when you stop to think about it.

It’s easy to destroy, easy to get in the way and just kick the ball away. It’s easy to break up the match by spreading fouls among a team, to have the keeper take the maximum time before restarting play. It’s easy for a team that doesn’t want a match to happen to prevent that match from happening. Conversely, making that match happen, scoring goals, making the magic work time and again against opponents who know what you are going to do, is daunting and kinda amazing when you really think about it.

“Levante was crap, which is why Barça won.” Sure. But until that electrifying Neymar goal, a collaboration between a pair of dazzlers, Levante was holding its own, looking to make halftime scoreless, regroup and see about getting the point they started the day with. Electricity made that happen.

Where was that electricity on Wednesday? Maybe on the practice pitch? We have forgotten fairly quickly, it seems, but the dynamo named Messi that started the season has returned to a bit of reality.


That Messi would have found a way against Malaga, because when Barça hits the gas, the team is unplayable. Messi passing, Neymar running, Munir and Sandro making intelligent movement as Busquets and Iniesta kept things ticking over like a metronome. Who were those slow, sluggish players misplaying passes and displaying the control of a blacksmith? You can know what Barça is going to do but if the team is on, you aren’t going to stop it.

If the team is off, however, you won’t be able to believe your luck as a great team becomes complicit in its own demise.

Does the tactical stuff — midfielder isolation, no forward passing, Malaga setting up blocks and hunting in packs, no attacking play from the fullbacks — all make sense? Absolutely. But I will argue to the death with anyone who doesn’t believe that Barça doesn’t have the quality to break any bus if the players are fresh and committed to the effort. They weren’t yesterday and even then, set piece possibilities beckoned as the team that couldn’t score found other ways to create danger.

They could isolate Neymar because there wasn’t anyone making themselves available. They could front Messi because what passing options did he have. Rakitic didn’t do anything offensive because what was there to do, as he and Pedro were reduced to standing around. And when Neymar, really the one player capable of doing precisely what was required to pierce that defense came off, Malaga was instantly emboldened.


Neymar couldn’t do anything because nobody else could. People focused on Douglas, who got his first start for Barça, saying that if Alves was there, things would have been different. Well, yeah. There would have been crosses into a box absent any Barça attackers, and more goal kicks for Malaga. So that would indeed have been different.

But the team just looked tired, which played right into Malaga’s hands.

How do you suppose Treble Barça would have fared had it faced defensive team after defensive team, 10 behind the ball every week in an effort to gain the point that the opponent came with.

FC Barcelona has a collection of the most demanding supporters in world football, where 5 wins, a draw and zero goals conceded is somehow “disappointing” for a team with a new coach and 7 new players as well as a new system. I am, frankly, amazed that Barça has the record that it does. Teams in that situation often struggle until everything gets worked out, then it’s off to the races. But Enrique’s Barça is winning. It isn’t (usually) winning by gaudy scorelines, but 2-0 is pretty gaudy when the opponent can’t beat our defense and keeper.

There are going to be matches such as Wednesday’s. It’s unavoidable because footballers are great athletes, but they are also human. They get tired. And from time to time, when they do get tired, there is an opponent there, waiting to pounce.


By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. right on kxevin, im with you on this..for me, malaga is in the rear view mirror and i cant wait for the next match..

    now…what was up with that pitch?? is there no regulation in professional football concerning the state of the pitch? that dried up substance that was supposed to be turf didnt even seem to be connected to the ground..

  2. I’m with Kxevin on this. Against such negative setups there will be days like this. I’m reluctant to draw conclusions from just one although it does set up the questions to be answered over the next few weeks.

    Ok, that said I’m just two hours into my three days of viewing the most riveting sports competition for me, bar none just ten minutes down the road at Gleneagles. Perfect etiquette from the Scots’ gallery round the first tee despite Bubba’s attempts to whip everything up.

  3. 0 shot on target for the first time in 10 years. Let’s not ridicule the critics as if they’re merely overreacting to a 0 – 0 draw. Had there even been a couple of shots on the crossbar… The team had been bone tired before. They had been distracted, de-motivated, and heartbroken before. Poor pitch, bad ref, hdp defenders, parked bus, nothing the team hadn’t encountered before. Yet apparently they had always managed at least a shot on target, until the last game.

    1. I can think of other games when we had shots on target AND were distracted, de-motivated, etc etc when we lost… badly..0-4 in Munich with a good pitch for example. Overreacting to a 0-0 without shots on target seems a little much.

  4. well frankly, no shots on goal is simply pathetic..unimaginable for our team..but we have granada at home in 24 hours (who have actually beat deportivo and atl. bilbao this year)..i imagine we’ll be able to muster up a few shots next game, so why get all worked up now?

    i watched the vid of luis suarez’s plays during the u-19 indonesia game..thought he looked kind of thick..and clunky..maybe im just not used to seeing players in another build than our little sprites..but he definitely doesnt look like he’s going to be burning rubber trying to win the will ball back when we lose possession..for all the flack that pedro seems to be getting recently, he’s absolutely vital in our first line of defense..

    1. I’ve followed Suarez sice he was at Ajax, and if I learned anything then its that suarez will be the first to go back and pressure the oppoent. He is a hard working striker and I bet that’s why LE insisted we buy him.

    2. i mean, really? have you seen him play for liverpool or uruguay? he is a beast! he hustles a lot, more than most. don’t let that one friendly game vs. an under 19 team from indonesia bias you. i watched part of that game too, and he looked more like he didn’t want to hurt anybody than anything. as if, he knew how silly he would look if gave 110% for a friendly, and just let the kids play.

    3. ^What he said.
      He was consciously trying to link up with teammates & create chances, especially for Halilovic.

  5. Enrique quipped about all the “fat Suarez” stuff in the presser today, suggesting liposuction as an option. Pretty funny.

    He also acknowledged that the team could have played better toward the end of the Malaga match, which is like admitting that the sun rises in the east.

  6. All this is just speculation, but maybe, just maybe, this is the result of bad lifestyle of the players which include the diet?
    The after match meal of the players was leaked on the internet, and what the vast majority of them ordered was pizza and soda. Before match, sure, high carb food is important. But after match?
    Messi was notoriously addicted to junk food before Guardiola. One of the first thing Guardiola did was forced his players to eat fish and vegetable, and Messi was largely injury free under him. And after Guardiola left, high carb diet, and injury problems return. Coincident? Maybe. Only the coach and the players know for sure.

    1. Don’t confuse diet with post-game meal. The post-game meal that’s heavy on carbohydrates is to replete muscle glycogen.

      What they eat the rest of the time is a different matter

      Anyway, I am still regularly amazed by revelations of what the diet of some famous athletes consists of. You would think that with the level of professionalization of sport and with the advances in sports medicine, what they are eating would be monitored around the clock and a repulsion towards junk food would be drilled into their heads from the time they were youth players. But the reality is quite different.

    2. As an athlete who has been working at a high level for 3 decades (bicycle racing), trust me, there are times when your body just doesn’t give a damn what you feed it. It will deal.

      The other thing worth noting is that (will struggle with phrasing delicacy here) a trained athlete’s system will erm … manage its input in an efficient manner. As someone joked during our spring trip last year, “Man, all we do is eat, crap, ride, sleep, eat and crap!”

      The need for post-workout nutrition involves calories, first and foremost, glycogen to replace depleted stores, as well as protein to aid in recovery. Some were raising their eyebrows at pizza and Nutella, but that’s actually pretty danged good for a post-effort meal. Carbs, grains, protein.

      The aversion to “junk food” is natural. The body knows what it wants and what it works best on. The fitter you get, the more you gravitate toward the “good” stuff. But every athlete, from high-level amateur to Olympian, has “junk” food of some sort in their diet. Some like M&Ms, some like ice cream or pastries.

      The allowance for that stuff is different because of how a fit body uses what it takes in. Shane Perkins, an Australian track sprint cyclist, burns 2k calories just laying in bed. If you don’t eat, it becomes easy to start destroying muscle. Because athletes burn through what they eat faster, precisely WHAT they eat has an allowance of sorts. Some gelato won’t matter a whole lot, in other words. It’s only as a matter of course that it becomes a problem.

      But the science of feeding athletes is exactly inexact, as it depends on the athlete. (Quick and dirty lesson of sorts coming up.)

      The image here is of a former teammate and I. We have both just ascended an 11-mile climb. As you might infer with even the most basic knowledge of Newtonian laws, he went up a lot faster than I did.

      But I burned a LOT more calories than he did (north of 1k or so), and burned them differently. Because of my high ratio of fast-twitch muscle fibers, my body takes fuel (food) and screams “Party at my place!” Then all the muscles come in, eat everything in sight as fast as they can then run away.

      My friend takes in fuel, and his slow-twitch muscles consume glycogen differently, at a slower, more measured rate. In short, his legs don’t hurt as much after the ride. I will also eat differently after a ride, vs after a gym training session.

      What, when and how much an athlete eats can be specific, but after a match, EVERYBODY needs carbs and protein. After that is when the specificity enters the frame.

      The Guardiola popcorn business, if true, could be because some say that corn is responsible for muscular inflammation. As for pizza, athletes know how much pizza to eat, which is “Until it’s all gone.” Takes a careful group of physios to monitor hungry sprites.

    3. I understand the higher burn rate, it’s the idea that eating junk food and red meat leads to muscle injuries that is more difficult to reconcile

  7. Enrique also talked about becoming “unpredictable”. But are we being sort of “tied-down” by the kind of football we play ? In this article Kxevin said we played badly. I do not object to the statement. However, do you think if we had played to best of our abilities we could’ve maybe scored ?

    For example, we met Athletico 6 times last season. We either could not score or scored once in each match (which we all drew btw). Agreed Malaga isnt Athletico, but my immediate reaction was – “this is how Athletico played us last season !”. Is it more likely that Athletico didnt allow us to play well last season ? We shouldve come on top over 6 matches I’d think. But we didn’t. And credit to Athletico btw.

    I’d have liked to see some experimentation. But maybe its too early in the season. We did find out one thing last season, cules dont like too many things going differently…

    1. I was just discussing that very thing on Twitter, and concluded that the Barça plays means that the team will always have a problem with buses. But you know what? Every team has a problem with buses.

      The general way to beat them is a little bit of individual magic, leavened by a touch of crazy, which is to say a remarkable play doing something completely bonkers.

      Atleti wasn’t a bus, which made them even more effective. They were a pressing, indefatigable fist. So the more passes that a team makes, the greater the possibilities of the system being disrupted. Against teams such as that you have to move the ball, and move it quickly. It’s why I wasn’t a fan of pulling Neymar. Pace and crazy are hard to argue with in a tight match. It just takes one play. Notice how it got more difficult when he went off, because that was one less sector that Malaga had to take seriously.

  8. I just think we lost face and searched for identity too hard in that match, i am not worried about drawing 0-0 with 0 shot on target versus malaga, what i worry about is the lackluster display against any team at this stage of the competition, i hate to think that we have peaked already and picked too early. Five clean sheets would have been the stuff of the dire stages of the season, for an unknown reason i feel the team doesn’t have the steam to batter with waves of defensive team after defensive team, teams that will be looking to dupe us for all three points and still be merry with one. I would have loved munir el haddaadi, Sandro, rafinha, samper and you name it, to peak or atleast get hype and rave reviews during mid season when the steam would need refreshing, but here at the very beginning we are already changing body parts.
    I hate to say this but other teams have to be worn out alot before we can win the league, last season, we were not banking on ourselves to win the league but were hoping that atleti grow tired and weary with wound and a sudden total lack of vision or motivation, which did not turn out fine.

    This team is wounded and hungry for success, but in my agy war eyes, we are already going to last resorts.
    Bucktooth for me is a total work horse, he is a player that always always troubles defences, like an hyper messi, but he is a bit callous as he always looks to score or help score a goal, in my head, suarez is better than messi and totally complete in all football genres.

    1. Villareal tried their best. EE’s style of counter attacking play is most efficient against teams that play like Villareal. I’m actually surprised there was only a 2 goal deficit.

  9. FFS Alves. If there is a player right in front of you ready to block the ball, don’t cross it!! 2-3 times already.

    It’s like he doesn’t know what else to do with the ball. Every ball at his feet, CROSS!

    Finally a great cross. Unfortunately the ball was behind Munir. I’m sure Trollers are going to have a field day with that miss.

    1. Still, to be fair to Alves I think his crosses were rather accurate today. Can’t argue with the volley for Messi’s header either. All in all a pretty impressive game by ye old Brazilian, showing he still has the potential to be decisive.

      Funny noting Messi hanging his head in disappointment a couple of times when not getting the ball back when he is rushing into the box. It’s like “hey, after all the times I’ve been feeding you, how about you feeding me some?”

    2. Yeah in the earlier stages of the match his crosses were horrible. Later on he crossed less and when he did it was more accurate.

  10. Take Messi out now. Match is won. Put Sandro in.
    Matthieu out for Bartra.
    Iniesta for Rocketic.

    And I’ll sleep peacefully knowing that the 3 key players are rested a bit for PSG in midweek.

  11. Not the best of games from our side, but Granada and the individual class of our players still allowed them to go to three-zero at half-time. Now if only Messi could get subbed off at halftime, this would be the perfect game before PSG next week…

  12. Wait a moment…5-0 and Messi involved in four of the goals so far? The little man is going to go crazy this season if he keeps this up…

    Also, Mathieu! Tackles as nice as Mascherano’s…

  13. Excellent game. Nice recovery from the momentary dip in midweek.

    Can’t see anything to find fault with. Clean sheet streak continues.

    On to PSG!!

    1. Mathieu is doing exactly the things Abidal used to do and that we’ve been missing for two seasons. Great purchase 🙂

    2. True, he’s lacking as a traditional CB… but in the barca system his height+speed combination is very useful.

  14. Great win. Everything went right, tactics, line up, subs except for Messi to be playing the full match. Hopefully it doesn’t come back to bite us vs. PSG.

    This was a great opportunity to take Messi off. Leading 4-0 in a home match. Now that’s 5 matches for the past 16 days and another one in 3 days with not a single minute of rest. That’s just plain ridiculous!! Hopefully he won’t be too tired for Tuesday’s match.

  15. I honestly don’t think Messi’s performances are ever really impacted by him being tired except when he’s injured.
    When Messi wants to play, and I mean really play, he does. He chases and harries and gets involved in everything. When he isn’t on form it isn’t because he doesn’t look energetic enough to do it, it looks like he isn’t up for it. Maybe just my opinion.

  16. I agree about Messi, most of the times when it seems he is not delivering it’s because he doesn’t really feels like it, thought there are cases when he’s just tired and not fit enough.
    But i’m glad that this season he is obviously thinking a little but differently and perhaps trying to establish a new record in the number of passes.
    Our 0 conceded goals fact is something to be proud of.

  17. Minutes 81. Barcelona winning 5-0. Messi pressing the Granada defense, scores a sixth. Thank you Lucho.

  18. “I considered taking Messi off to rest him, but watching him in action is such a big joy that I preferred to have him on the pitch for 90 minutes.”- Luis Enrique.

    Hope he doesn’t have this mentality for the rest of the season.

  19. The kind of Messi we need is this tireless working un selfish Messi ,who doesn’t care about getting on the score sheet anymore but is more concerned about creating chances and helping the team win. I will take that Messi over a CR7 that scores a billion goals per match. Look at the Neymar third, old Messi would have tried to score by himself… Hmmm… I wonder what Enrique has said to these guys…

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