“An army of sheep led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by a sheep,” Alexander the Great.
It goes without saying that all top European clubs have a very influential captain. Real Madrid – Sergio Ramos; Chelsea – John Terry; Bayern Munich – Philipp Lahm; Liverpool – Steven Gerrard. Atletico Madrid – Gabi. And more often than not, do these iconic athletes manage to inspire their respective teams to strive and take them the distance.
FC Barcelona too had one such man. One who could take the fall and then again rise to the occasion. One who could get his face stapled and rush to the pitch to help an ailing side. One who could seamlessly relinquish his captain’s armband for another teammate who just recovered from a serious illness so that the latter could lift a coveted trophy. One who could step-up when it mattered and score to bail out the team. One Carles Puyol.
Barcelona never had one like Carles, and never will they have one ever again. In his absence, the team seems to lack the motivation, hunger, desire and passion to step up and deliver.
As much as Barcelona needs replacements for some of their ageing stars, they also need a captain who can fill the void left by Puyol’s absence. And if one scans through all the options that the club has right now, there’s only one name which checks most of the check-boxes if not all – Javier Mascherano.
At just 171 centimetres, Mascherano doesn’t have the intimidating physique of some of his colleagues in his position, but his hunger and motivation are second to none. His patience and willingness to adapt and learn has made him one of the most important cogs in the team.
In the summer of 2010, when Javier Mascherano was signed from Liverpool, he hardly looked the Barcelona type of player. How would a player with the worst disciplinary record in the Premier League fit into the soothing and seamless passing game played at the Camp Nou? No one in their sane minds would have imagined Mascherano as a Barcelona player back then. Today no one with a sane mind would think otherwise.
It was the foresight of Guardiola and his tactical brilliance that led the Catalan club to pursue Mascherano and eventually acquire him.
Mascherano Of Yesteryears
Mascherano promised a lot at the beginning of his career. With two Olympic gold medals and an array of stunning performances, his 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. Mascherano did not budge. River’s financial 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, Mascherano 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, Xabi Alonso and Steven 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, Mascherano 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 the Argentine, 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. Thus extracting revenge for the calamitous night in Istanbul in 2005.
Mascherano, in Liverpool, was a player who would bring great physicality into a 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.
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 the young Sergio Busquets or the ageing Seydou 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-dimensional players in Javier Mascherano of that era.
Mascherano Of Today
But everything you read above is water under the bridge.
At 30, Mascherano is one of the most sorted out players on the planet. At Barcelona, the former Argentina captain usually plies his trade as a central defender, despite being a defensive midfielder. And in the World Cup he’s shown that despite being constantly played out of position, he still remains one of the best in his zone.
His understanding of the game is exemplary and most of his teammates are of the opinion that one day, Mascherano will turn out to be a brilliant coach.
Mascherano of today is swift and neat. His biggest asset is his ability to keep things simple. He had to learn the art of defending again, but this time as a defender and that made him very patient. And contrary to what people usually expect, for a player of his zone, he can go without committing a foul for matches. He has just 1 yellow card (against Germany in the final) in 7 matches that he played at the World Cup.
He is aware of his shortcomings, ergo he doesn’t think of doing the unnatural. In the World Cup, he was excellent in snatching the ball away from opposition and giving it to his teammates with more flair to move the game ahead. This is exactly what Luis Enrique has to think about.
The Stuff Leaders Are Made Of
The Argentine midfielder is one of the most selfless athletes on the planet and his performance against Netherlands in the World Cup, bear testimony to that. Not only did he conquer his physical pain and lack of pace, but also effectively stopped Arjen Robben’s last-minute strike to keep Argentina in the game.
Moreover, in every team-huddle, Lionel Messi wore the arm-band, but Mascherano did the talking. In the penalty shoot-outs against Netherlands, Romero may have hogged all the limelight but his small chat with the midfielder is certainly one of reasons for Romero to step-up and deliver.
“Today you’ll make yourself a hero,” said Mascherano to Romero.
Romero denied Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder and indeed became the hero.
Tactically Luis Enrique will have to decide whether to prefer Mascherano over Busquets or play them together. But to start with he can make Javier the captain and frame his strategies.
When the entire team erupted in celebration on reaching the finals of the World Cup, Mascherano cried. He showed his emotions. He showed that he has a heart. He showed that he was brave and cared deeply and wasn’t afraid to express it.
These are the things one wants in a captain. And in comparison to a stoic Messi or a passive Iniesta, a passionate Mascherano is the ideal choice for the Barcelona captain’s armband next season.