Like many fans, when I first heard that Barca acquired the services of Javier Mascherano in 2010, I assumed he would be a quality substitute for Sergio Busquets, if and when required and not much more. As usual, I couldn't have been more wrong. Mascherano represents a different aspect of football, one most Culés don't completely comprehend because of our obsession with attractive football.
He is the steel that every team, hoping to compete for titles, must have and is much more than just another defensive midfielder. The Argentine is unique, in that, I have never seen a player with his particular set of skills and so finely tuned at that. The midfielder/defender is also an ambassador of Argentinian football in many ways. Unlike their Portuguese speaking neighbours, the beautiful game in Argentina has not always been taken in the literal sense of the word. Who am I kidding, Argentinian football is rough and physicality is a major aspect of their game.
From club football level to the Albiceleste (the senior national team), Argentina is the Mr. Hyde of football, especially when you compare them to Brazil, who have always been known for their flair. That isn't to suggest that they haven't produced phenomenon’s (Maradona and Lionel Messi) but their style of play is more physical and less about "Joga Bonito". Mascherano is the product of that physical aspect of the game because, as fate would have it, he was blessed with the right combination of skills to make his underrated role on the field look, poetic (it's the only word I could think of to explain the essence of his style of play).
One aspect of his game includes tackles or regaining possession. Tackling has been an integral part of the game since its inception, but very few possess the right combination of timing and skill to execute a clean side tackle time and again. Like all midfield destroyers, Mascherano has his bad days and is probably more prone to a red card than most players in the Catalan side, but you just have to watch one of his videos to know how much of a handful he can be to even the best strikers when he's in form. So make sure you watch the one below:
The Ultimate Javier Mascherano Compilation (via TintinCompilations)
Guardiola, being the genius that he is, had the foresight to not only recognise the Argentinian's value but also a way to improve on them. After all, how many of us felt that Barca really needed Mascherano at that point of time? At the time, the first question that popped into my head was "Why did they bother selling Yaya Toure then?" Couldn't they have just convinced Toure to stay? Rest assured, Mascherano is the right kind of steel that Barca needed to further improve. Pep must have seen what all of us are only just beginning to realise. How does one replace an ageing player like Carles Puyol? Especially, since what Barca required, at the time, wasn't a marquee signing but a squad player and one of extremely high quality.
Moreover, Barca with Pep at the helm has always looked for players who can adapt to different positions on the pitch. Our beloved team's coach realised that there was just one final aspect to be added to the Argentine's game that would make him a legendary midfielder/defender: One touch passes. And where else in the world can anybody find a better place to learn that but in FC Barcelona?
In Mascherano, the Catalans found just the right type of player to replace Carles Puyol because he has the stubborn doggedness (for emphasis I should probably add synonyms like obstinate and tenacious, so stubbornly obstinate and tenaciously dogged:)) that automatically impresses. He simply will not let an attacker pass and if he does? The chances are, by the time the striker has reached Barca's goal, he would much rather just lie down and die than take the effort to kick the ball into the net. In the lion's absence (admit it, Puyol doesn't have hair, he has a mane) El Jefecito has become a beast in defence. So much so that, all of us have moved on from "we don't have a defender" to "God, why Busquets?!!!" Basically we can see Mascherano as the next Puyol, he has more than enough steel and his passing has improved and will continue to do so. The only thing lacking in Puyol's absence, is a sense of leadership and experience but Captain Catalunya isn't done is he? Also Gerard Pique is being groomed to take over the mantle, in my opinion.
Mascherano is the ugly duckling of this current crop of Blaugranas (In world football, second to Carlos Tevez as far as looks are concerned;)) but I can only imagine the kind of fear that he instils in opponents. Unlike the modern day defender or defensive midfielder, the Argentine isn't a big player and he isn't built like his predecessor, Yaya Toure. He makes up for that with just the right amount of aggression and an attitude that says "I am going to get that ball. That ball is mine and by the time I'm done, you'll be a kitten for the rest of the game" and moreover, that exquisite timing when it comes to tackling is something everybody has to witness.
After regaining possession, which he inevitably will, he has the ability that all deep lying midfielders require which involves getting back on your feet as soon as possible and relieving pressure by making a quick, short pass. I'll admit that in the passing department, nobody not named Xavi or Iniesta, comes close to Sergio Busquets but then how many times have we seen Mascherano play in midfield? After all, as far as most Cules are concerned, he is a defender and a revelation of sorts, in that role. He might lack the height to deal with crosses or set pieces but with Pique and Eric Abidal, the team has managed quite well haven't they? (I will not bring up Busquets and his mind numbing heading ability)
Last year, Mascherano's slide tackle saved the game against Arsenal FC in the Champion's League (although I'm sure Nicklas Bendtner would have found a way to miss that goal at any rate) and it could therefore be stated that the Argentine got us to the finals right? (The Madrid game was all La Pulga) I have no doubt that Javier will go on to save many more games for the Catalans and will, in time, turn out to be one of the great purchases of the Guardiola era.
His role in our beloved club might not attract too much in terms of accolades and invidual awards but I, for one, am extremely relieved he plays for Barca. I'll be looking forward to the next save and who knows, this time he might singlehandedly help Barca retain Ol' Big Ears.
P.S:- Thanks to Sebastian (editor-in-chief), here is a short list of players who will probably beat Mascherano in the "Who's Uglier department":
Untill the next time,
your friendly neighborhood Indian.
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