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The Tackle That Changed Javier Mascherano’s Career

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Yes, it’s THAT tackle against Arsenal

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Round of 16 - Second Leg - Barcelona v Arsenal - Nou Camp Photo by Mike Egerton - EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

The year is 2011. The score is Barcelona 3, Arsenal 1, but it’s 3-2 on aggregate. Improbably, 10-man Arsenal are one goal away from progressing on away goals at the Camp Nou.

Adriano loses the ball from the left-back position. Jack Wilshere plays the ball towards Nicklas Bendtner, whose control takes him slightly wide. Out of nowhere, Mascherano comes flying in with a sliding challenge.

The ball harmlessly drifts into Victor Valdes’s arms. Barça are spared, and on their way to the UEFA Champions League title.

Mascherano has since said that “That tackle marked a before and after.”

The before and after is Mascherano going from someone who didn’t fit in to someone who had an important role. And it was him adapting from a defensive midfielder to a centerback, where he plays exclusively now for both club and country.

Mascherano, in an interview with The Guardian:

“I actually played that game in midfield; it was Busquets who played at centre-back,” he recalls. “But from then on, I played at centre-back: that tackle changed everything. I found my position and I’ve been there all these years, trying to keep my place and keep this level. Until when? I don’t know because Barcelona demand a lot and have the possibility to sign whoever they want.”

And now he’s leaving, after seven and a half years of service. The player had admitted that at first, he thought he’d be gone much sooner:

“Honestly,” he says, “after five, six months I thought it was unlikely I’d be here long: my characteristics seemed to go against everything Barcelona stood for. That moment marked me. If Bendtner had controlled the ball and gone the other way, he’d have got away from me and … uffff! … I don’t know what would’ve happened. But it happened the way it happened and we ended up winning that Champions League. Things worked out well.”

“I’ve always refused to give up. You think: ‘If I’m not playing at West Ham, how am I going to play for Liverpool when they already have Gerrard and Xabi Alonso?’ But I took that as a challenge and it was the same when I joined Barcelona. But it was hard and [by then] I knew I wouldn’t take Sergio Busquets’ place. Impossible, impossible. Think of another player anywhere who could do what Busquets does for this team … there isn’t one. It was hard to see myself having a long stay here.”

Barcelona had injury problems in 2011 at centerback. Gerard Piqué missed time, while Carles Puyol suffered a long-term injury. Gabriel Milito struggled for fitness the whole season, which would precipitate his retirement. And Eric Abidal, who was sometimes converted from left-back, missed a long stretch of the year battling cancer.

Against Arsenal, Barça lined up with Busquets and Abidal as the centerback pairing. In the next round, against Shakhtar Donetsk, Barcelona had Busquets and Piqué as their partnership at the back. They struggled with pacy forwards, as Guardiola wanted them to have a high line.

Mascherano again played in midfield, and again failed to give the sort of one-touch passing Busquets was so adapt at.

In the return leg against Shakhtar, Guardiola retreated the 5’9” Mascherano to centerback and returned Busquets back into midfield.

Mascherano was very short for a traditional defender, but given his ability to cover ground, he was a better fit than Busquets. And his passing ability, perhaps lacking for a “pivot” in Guardiola’s system, was pretty good for a defender.

After the match, Guardiola said he ”wanted his speed at the back, and also his experience.” Growing pains were to be expected, but he performed admirably.

And the boss used him as a defender from then on, even starting him in the UEFA Champions League Final against Manchester United in that position. Barcelona won 3-1.

Mascherano now will leave, but that tackle changed it all. For most of his time at Barça, he played almost exclusively as a centerback.