Captain Underrated – Javier Mascherano
Javier Mascherano arrived at Barcelona with the odds stacked against him. A holding midfielder entering a team who had just won a domestic treble, with Sergio Busquests emerging as one of the worlds best defensive midfielders and a solid defensive partnership of Pique and Puyol. Standing at 5″9 Mascherano stood no chance in shifting these giants. The Argentinian had previously established himself as a bulldozer in England, earning his keep in the engine room of a Liverpool side that finished 7th in the Premier League and crashed out of the Europa League.
Liverpool were a defensively solid team, over-reliant on the organisation that Benitez had bought them with a direct approach to goal-scoring. Barcelona, on the other hand, were on the road to becoming the most successful team in world football. Their beautiful, fluid tiki-taka style of play had won them plaudits but more importantly trophies. Mascherano’s style of play in Argentina for River Plate was of an enforcer, specialising in breaking the play up before distributing the ball elsewhere. Famous for his crunching tackles and barking orders, he surely suited the ruggedness of the Premier League over the beauty of Barca.
But Mascherano is humble, forever recognising that he couldn’t play to the heights of Xavi or Iniesta a counting it as a blessing that Barcelona had persued him after they failed to net the signature of Cesc Fabregas. “It is a blessing to be here. I watch Busquets and learn,” he said. “I’d love to be able to play like Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, but I can’t.”. After a shocking debut against Herclues, in which he was hauled off at half time, it looked likely that his shelf-life at Barca would be limited. It is lucky, then, that Mascherano has spent his whole life fighting to succeed. His up bringing in Argentina wasn’t easy, and his battle to gain recognition amongst Argentina’s ‘Golden Generation’ who won the Gold Medal at the Olympic Games was far from simple.
However, under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola his game began to grow naturally. More often than not ‘Masch’ was deployed as centre-back alongside Pique as Carles Puyol struggled with injury. Of course, for rival teams, a midfielder playing as a centre-back seems like a massive chink is the armour of a team as good as Barcelona. His reading of the game developed immensely and his understanding of the importance of keeping possession was unmatched often striding out of defence to start attacks. Six years on, Mascherano has become a permanent fixture next to Gerard Pique at the heart of the defence – and it is impossible to see anybody shifting the ballsy Argentinian.
To this day Mascherano operates as a holding midfielder for Argentina and was one of the most prominent components during their march to the 2014 World Cup final. Simple and neat in possession, Mascherano echoes the playing style of Barcelona team mate Busquets. But above that, he retains the immaculate trait of being able to read the opposition like a book – more importantly the crunching tackles haven’t disappeared. BBC correspondent in South America, Tim Vickery, adores the playing style of him, not least for his new found passing range which has come from playing out of defence so often at club level.
Mascherano is a curious case of a world class player who will be forgotten by future generations because he doesn’t score 50 goals a season, or style his hair and drive a fast car. But he should be remembered, and applauded for, his meticulous playing style. A cog in the Barcelona machine that has become as vital as Messi, Busquets or Iniesta – but one that is surely as underrated as Busquets was when he burst on to the scene. Mascherano is used to fighting to the top, one day the spotlight will shine on him.