It’s not very often that a captain of one of the premier national teams on the planet, bought for €21 million, doesn’t get to start regularly. However, this unfortunate feat is occurring with Javier Alejandro Mascherano. Such is the quality of the current FC Barcelona first eleven that Mascha finds it difficult, even after four months, to be a regular starter for the Spanish Champions. Now comes the obvious question – Did Masche do the right thing by choosing FC Barcelona? Most of us don’t have an answer as of now. Purists might jump the gun and say YES. However, the scenario will become more comprehensible towards the end of the season.
Mascherano promised a lot at the beginning of his career. With two Olympic gold medals and an array of stunning performances, Masche’s international career proliferated exponentially. In 2003-04, his impactful performances for River Plate helped them in winning the Clausura. This, however, opened the door for an imminent move to Europe. Several European giants were reportedly hounding to secure his services. Team like Real Madrid and Deportivo de La Coruna too were thrown in the mix. Masche did not budge. River’s demand for the midfielder played truant. He then went on to become one of the most integral members of River Plate. He eventually moved to Brazilian outfit Corinthians post the 2005 Confederations Cup and then to Europe. He along with Carlos Tevez signed for West Ham United after the 2006 World Cup.
Mascherano signed for Liverpool in January 2007. A clichéd, hard-tackling defensive midfielder that he is, Masche was ideally suited for the rigours of the English League. He went on to consolidate his reputation as one of the best defensive midfielders on the planet. The midfield trio of Mascherano, Alonso and Gerrard was a perfect mix of strength, flair and leadership. The Argentine, however, lacked attacking prowess. The ability to surge ahead and take on the opposition defence while supplying defense-troubling passes to the forwards never existed in Mascherano. So much so was this deficiency highlighted that the midfield combo of Lucas and Mascherano was termed as one of the biggest reasons behind the collapse of the iconic English club.
Having said so, Masche still remains one of the best when it comes to handling defensive duties. The dizzy heights of the 2007 UEFA Champions League final in which an exceptionally talented Brazilian playmaker in Kaka was iron-casted by Mascherano manifested his potency. Rafael Benitez, ironically showed the world the greatness of Mascherano by taking him off in the last quarter of the match in lieu of an attacker – Peter Crouch. The once incarcerated Kaka made the most of his newly found liberty and delivered a delightful through ball to Inzaghi, who did what he does best.
Mascherano, in Liverpool, was a player who would bring about the physical aspect in the midfield. He brought about the aura of tirelessness and tough-tackling which to a certain extent kept the opposition at bay. However, the Argentine wasn’t anywhere near the legendary Claude Makelele – an exemplary defensive midfielder. Mascherano lacked the ability to be present at the right place at the right time and this frailty was covered to a large extent by Xabi Alonso and, at times, by Lucas. The elegance, ability to read the game and anticipation of Alonso often overshadowed Mascherano’s infirmity and the former’s departure from Anfield brought forth an ugly truth. Lucas was nowhere near the Spaniard and the man who was supposedly the replacement for Alonso – Alberto Aquilani, never quite managed to recapture his form. Liverpool’s condition went from bad to worse.
Benitez was thus stranded with two midfielders who lacked the creativity that’s imperative to run the engine. Mascherano’s lack of flexibility can be deemed to be one of the reasons behind Liverpool’s demise. With their main striker Torres getting injured frequently the onus was on Gerrard to do the job of Alonso and Torres put together – a humongous task for the skipper, to say the least.
The Barcelona Story
After a bitter end to his Liverpool chapter, El Jefecito – The little chief, moved to FC Barcelona. The Catalan outfit secured the services of Mascherano for a sum of €21 million. The departure of gigantic Ivorian Yaya Toure to English moneybags – Manchester City – created a vacuity which looked too huge to be managed by Busquets or Keita. The irony of the deal is that the team, which has multi-dimensional personnel in almost all positions, bought one of the most single-dimensioned players in Javier Mascherano. Evidently, Mascherano is a misfit as far as FC Barcelona’s football philosophy is concerned.
Nonetheless, the Argentine captain is a fast learner and if stats are to be believed, in his last game for the Blaugranas, he made more than 100 passes and also won back 15 times. Good by his standards. “I want Mascherano to be my captain because I believe he is the Argentinian player who is closest to the idea I have about the Argentinian shirt – sweat for it, sacrifice for it, being a professional, being close to the team-mate,” said the great Diego Maradona. Mascherano has all the attributes as has been specified by the ex-Argentina coach, but he still lacks something. Something which acts as a hindrance in his way to cement a berth in the Barcelona first eleven. Something which allows Sergio Busquets to get a nod ahead of him. It’s not the Catalan link, but Masche’s inability to contribute to the attack as consistently as Sergio. His inability to be a strong exponent of the touch-and-run philosophy and his lack of fluidity is an obstacle between him and a starting place in FC Barcelona.
The man who was supposedly replaced by Mascherano – Yaya Toure – was a decent character in FC Barcelona’s link-ups. Toure also had the ability to dribble past defenders – unlikely of a man of his stature. The giant Ivorian could also fall back into the Barcelona defense and form a back-three when the fullbacks were busy assisting the forwards. This is also a unique quality in Sergio Busquets. The young Spaniard is a fine example of flexibility. Be it attacking or defending, Busquets is equally comfortable at both – a quality which he imbibed from the hallowed La Masia. As a matter of fact most of FC Barcelona’s La Masia graduates are extremely malleable.
Mascherano doesn’t seem to be a player who would wait for an opportunity to bilk the opponent off the ball. He’s more of a snatcher who’d try his best to seize the ball and this is exactly where he doesn’t fit into the Barcelona model of football. Busquets has the natural ability to go ahead as the forward and also provide defense splitting passes to his team mates and also to fall back and defend with his centre-halfs. As of the now, the Argentine captain cannot be trusted with such crucial responsibilities. And this is exactly the reason as to why Premier League fans haven’t seen as much of Mascherano as they would have loved to see. However, the transfer is far from being a failure as the man in question is just 26 and has a lot of time to cope.
Another point to be noted is the kind of formation Mascherano was used to be in. For Liverpool, he was usually played in a 4-2-3-1 formation. His growth as a naturally attacking footballer was stunted as he was handed the responsibility to stall the opposition’s attacks and provide his ‘more skillful’ upfront players with the ball. Masche also had cover with him to provide him support in the ‘dirty job’. This however, isn’t the state of affairs at the Camp Nou. If Masche is to be employed as an out-and-out defensive midfielder, then Xavi too must be placed alongside the Argentine in order to make up for the former’s inability to hold onto the ball, at length. This would mean more over-dependence on Andres Iniesta to orchestrate the attack from the midfield. A standard argument would be to field Busquets and Mascherano together. This would mean a compromise on the defensive and attacking fronts. A compromise on Barcelona’s football philosophy. Neither will the team perform well nor will it go down well with the Camp Nou faithfuls.
Mascherano is definitely a player with a lot of potential. A strong and amiable character that he is, it won’t be a problem for him to acclimatize in any dressing room. However, the scenario isn’t exactly the same at FC Barcelona. With a style of their own, Mascherano will only be accepted as one of Barcelona’s chief lieutenants if he imbibes the education imparted at La Masia. With time on his side, this however doesn’t seem to be a very difficult task. Till then El Jefecito has to be contented with whatever opportunities come his way.