Luis Enrique got a lot wrong as Barcelona stumble in La Liga title hunt

Well, that didn’t go according to plan for Barcelona, at all. After Real Madrid were held to a draw in the Madrid derby earlier Saturday, it was expected Barcelona would handle business against Malaga and jump up to first place. That didn’t happen.

Real Madrid left the door open, and rather than ease through it Barcelona rammed their faces into the door jamb and bloodied their noses. The manner in which they lost to Malaga 2-0 was alarming, too. This wasn’t a smash-and-grab job by the hosts, lucky to get one over on mighty Barcelona. No, Malaga were the better team overall on Saturday, more than deserving of the result.

The officials had a horrible match, it must be said, but they were indiscriminate when it came to their incompetence. Barcelona had a late clear-cut penalty reduced to just a free-kick outside the box, but Malaga had a goal improperly waved off for offside. So, while it’s horrid officiating, Barcelona can’t even point the finger solely at referee Jesús Gil Manzano.

A lot of the loss comes down to how Barcelona approached the match. Luis Enrique gambled with his lineup, opting to field a weakened starting XI. Ostensibly, Enrique aimed to rest a few key players ahead of Barcelona’s Champions League quarterfinal first leg against Juventus midweek. That clearly backfired.

To be fair, the Blaugranas were shorthanded entering the match with Ivan Rakitic and Gerard Pique out due to suspension. Even so, Enrique misfired with his replacement options. Andre Gomes and Denis Suarez joined the midfield alongside stalwart Sergio Busquets on Saturday, pushing Andres Iniesta to the bench. But not only did Enrique rejigger his starting XI, he switched up formations from the 3-0 win against Sevilla on Wednesday.

Rather than stick with a three-man backline that kept Sevilla at bay, Enrique went with a back four. Jeremy Mathieu  — whose performance on day only cemented the sentiment that he shouldn’t start a game for Barcelona, ever — joined Samuel Umtiti in the center of the back line. The wholesale changes weren’t just ineffective, they were detrimental.

Sandro scored the opener after Mathieu made an ill-advised rush to try and pull the offside trap in the first half, and that goal would stand as the eventual match-winner. If there was any question whether or not Enrique got his tactics all wrong, his double-switch at halftime put those to bed. On came Iniesta and Sergi Roberto for Denis Suarez and Mathieu, respectively. Barcelona became much more dangerous, but it all blew up again once Neymar was sent off with a second yellow and subsequent red.

Enrique and Barcelona had a gilt-edged opportunity to put the La Liga title into a dead heat. Down just three points and with a match against Real Madrid still to play they’re still well in it, but they’ll have to rue Saturday’s outcome. Real Madrid still have a La Liga match in hand, too. With Juventus next on the menu for Barcelona, it’s only going to get tougher as the month drags on.

It’s just one match, but Lionel Messi & Co. should be riding a wave of momentum heading into the difficult stretch. Instead, they’re looking more likely to get sucked under by the current.