Javier Mascherano is coming into his own as Barcelona’s first choice centre back (Photo: FCBarcelona)
European giants Barcelona’s successes can be attributed to a particular Argentinean player: backbone of the team Javier Mascherano.
Not Lionel Messi, arguably the best player of our generation? Make no mistake, Messi has been absolutely phenomenal this season and to be fair, every single one prior. But there is a compelling reason why the Catalans have only let in a total of nine goals in 2016, a surprising figure given Barcelona’s reputation as advocates of an outscoring, all offence no defence gameplay. And it is down to Mascherano’s heroics in the Barca back four.
While partnering Gerard Pique in central defence isn’t his natural role, the 31-year-old who captains his national team as a defensive midfielder has taken centerback responsibilities with aplomb.
Mascherano, or El Jefecito (The Little Chief) as he is known by his teammates, has been every bit instrumental to the 38 match unbeaten record held by Barcelona, extended this morning after La Liga winners ran out victors over Arsenal in their last 16 second leg encounter.
Before goals by Barcelona’s clinical front three all but sealed their entry into the last eight, Arsene Wenger’s side were knocking on their door, coming close to scoring on multiple occasions, but Mascherano had other ideas, putting in a solid defensive performance to keep the Gunners at bay.
The 3-1 scoreline flatters the Catalans, who could have easily let in one or two more. Arsenal also had themselves to blame, where the likes of Danny Welbeck and former Barcelona man Alexis Sanchez who let themselves down with poor finishing. Take nothing away from Mascherano though, who completed 13 tackles.
Mascherano has formed a formidable defensive partnership with Gerard Pique (Photo: FCBarcelona)
The hard, no nonsense manner in which Mascherano conducts himself as a defensive player reflects the sort of role he revels in at the Camp Nou. Until last season, the Argentine had been Barcelona’s de facto captain, exhibiting leadership without the authority of the Senyera armband.
This season marks his first as third-choice captain since joining the club in 2008, but the transition is more an act of formality than anything. The truth is ‘Masche’ has been Barcelona’s captain all along, and the hardliner they have been looking for since cult hero Carles Puyol announced his retirement at the end of 2013.
Mascherano’s stay at Barca wasn’t always rosy. Facing competition from Sergio Busquets for a starting berth as a defensive pivot proved to transform the nature of Mascherano’s game. Being regarded as one of the best, if not the best defensive midfielder in the world means little at Barcelona, where fresh faced Busquets managed to oust current Manchester City midfield anchor Yaya Toure.
He would eventually come to craft his own destiny with the blaugrana, marrying his ball-playing skills as a midfielder and his no nonsense defensive mindset to reinvent himself as an archetypal Barcelona centre back.
He is not the type of defender who cushions his defensive frailties with the occasional victory-securing goal. In what seems like a surprising statistic, Mascherano has never scored a single goal for Barcelona, not even in a non-competitive game.
During Tata Martino’s less than satisfactory tenure at the club which saw them crash out of the Copa del Rey and Champions League, Javier Mascherano was linked with moves away from the club.
In hindsight, it was a stark reminder that it was the lacklustre leadership displayed by the Argentine coach, rather than the players not measuring up to expectations, that saw Barcelona end the season the way they did. The fact that Lionel Messi was criticised for his performances says everything you need to know about the validity of the argument.