Analysis

Javier Mascherano, still key to long-term defensive success at Barcelona

Javier Mascherano, still key to long-term defensive success at Barcelona
Javier Mascherano, still key to long-term defensive success at Barcelona
Among the thousands of compilations of Barça football on Youtube, there are a few without flicks, tricks, or goals – they are the ones solely...
Mascherano Roma Champions League

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Among the thousands of compilations of Barça football on Youtube, there are a few without flicks, tricks, or goals – they are the ones solely dedicated to razor-edged tackles saving a definite goal, destroying a counter-attack with perfect ease or spraying an exquisite pass from the back to tear apart the opponent.

Those are of Mascherano, Javier Alejandro Mascherano, or as lovingly referred to as ‘El Jefecito’ ­-- the little boss. Fortunately, the courageous Argentinean has just signed a new three year contract that secures his future at the Camp Nou until 2019.

To be honest, when Mascherano arrived in Barcelona in 2010, I was a bit hesitant. Not about his quality; he showed it in good quantity in his previous years in Liverpool, West Ham and River Plate. He was a brilliant player, but his position, that of the defensive midfielder was preoccupied by Sergio Busquets, and it is quite obvious how difficult it would be to dislodge the Octopus of Badia -- as Yaya Toure found soon enough. And thus, I was unsure of how good a signing he would turn out for the club. Not because of his quality, but because of his position already being taken by the gem that was the young Sergio.

Then, Pep Guardiola worked his genius once again. Due to Masche’s world-class passing and game-reading skills, Pep moved Masche back into the central defender position when Pique and Puyol both got injured. Given his height and inexperience there, there was doubt. He dived in like a midfielder can and a defender never should, hence the initial criticism. 

One moment, as Mascherano explained years later, changed the whole perspective: His goal-saving tackle on Nicklas Bendtner in Champions League round of 16, against Arsenal. ‘It was my turn to be there at the right moment’, he said after the game. Since then, he has never looked back and is firmly placed as a starting centre-back for the Catalan Giants, forming a formidable partnership with the ever-improving Gerard Pique.

As Mascherano later recalled of Pep, “He gave me that confidence and the tools to continue growing in that position. I’m aware that if not for Guardiola, I would not have played in Barcelona as central midfielder, let alone a central defender.”

Mascherano has evolved quite a lot in these years, metamorphosing himself into a reliable Barcelona centre-back, good with the ball, with exquisite passing skills and unmatchable destroyer skills, staying back in attacks and corners to cut out any counter-attacks the opposition team might ensue. His ability to tackle and get up instantly on his feet make him extremely difficult to get past. All of these skills make him adept at playing the Barcelona high-line, and as former sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta put, not get perplexed when looking backwards and seeing a whole empty half.

Perhaps even more importantly, Mascherano is an inspirational leader. He is the man the dressing room turns to when a storm needs calming. He was the one who shut down the media after the reported dressing room bust ups between Lionel Messi and Luis Enrique in January of 2015, the one who after the victory against Atletico told the gathered media to ‘stop dishing the dirt’. From that match on, Barcelona never stopped and won a historic treble.

Now, with Samuel Umtiti’s signing, there is new blood in the order, but it will take time for him to adapt to the Barcelona way, it being so famously proactive and complicated for newcomers to fully understand. Mascherano signing a new deal is fantastic news for the manager, the team and the club's future.

Mascherano is still hungry for victory, definitely, given the amazing season that he had in the last outing, and given he has shown no physical signs of slowing down. Keeping that in mind, the Argentinean is still the go-to centre back, along with Gerard Pique. Umtiti would have to learn and compete for his spot. And who better to learn from then Mascherano?

When asked which teammate they see as a prospective manager, everyone at the Camp Nou names Mascherano. There is nobody better for Umtiti to learn from. Mascherano will keep playing his amazing brand of football for the team in the coming three years and slowly hand over the baton to Umtiti, indulging him in the arts.

Despite his 32 years of age, Mascherano is still an indispensable part of the team, and him staying also means the team doesn’t lose its main vocal leader. Andrés Iniesta is the captain, but Don Andrés purely leads by example. He is the one who helps other teammates on the field with his calm and composed game, drawing opponents and making it easier for others. Mascherano is the storm stopper, both in the dressing room and the pitch. The team will always have need of him. It is clear how much he loves the club, and is ready to put his body on the line for it, diving into every tackle in every training session, friendly or competitive match.

In what is certainly a rarity in modern football, Mascherano holds himself with grace and honour in front of the media, always ensuring club values remain intact. His class was showcased after Georgio Cheillini’s comments before the Champions League final of 2015 that Messi would not have scored his wonder goal against Athletic Bilbao against an Italian team. Mascherano later diffused the mood by saying that the Italian's quotes had to be understood in their context and people should look beyond just the headline.

A more intelligent, consistent, reliable and honourable player would be hard to find and it is a beautiful fact that Barça rewarded the jewel that is Mascherano with a contract extension. 

Looking forward to many more success-filled years with El Jefecito!

By Kaustav Phukan, columnist at Barcablog. Follow him on Twitter @Kdp_11.