Competition for places and a new manager might force Javier Mascherano from the Camp Nou, soon after scoring his famous debut goal
Barcelona followed up their Clasico triumph with a devastating 7-1 win over Osasuna on Wednesday evening and while the Camp Nou paid tribute to Lionel Messi for adding another two to his staggering tally of 500, Javier Mascherano stole the show with his first goal in seven years at the club.
The combative, no-nonsense enforcer, or Jefecito as he is known, smashed in Barca’s sixth from the penalty spot after the demands of supporters and teammates and while it ended a run of 318 games in a Barcelona shirt without a goal for Mascherano, it was also the 100th league goal of the season for Luis Enrique’s side and the 500th in all competitions under Lucho.
The 32-year-old’s career has been built on tough-tackling and leadership rather than goals but that hasn’t prevented Mascherano scoring four times in his club career with another three coming in the colours of Argentina.
At international level, Mascherano is prolific in comparison and his last came fairly recently against Trinidad & Tobago in 2014, but for his last club goal, you need to cast your mind all the way back to Liverpool’s UEFA Cup victory against Unirea Urziceni in February 2010.
A major factor in Mascherano’s Barcelona drought has been his reinvention as a central defender rather than the midfielder that he began life as and remains for Argentina.
Arriving at the Camp Nou after a failed attempt to bring Cesc Fabregas to the club, it wasn’t clear that Mascherano was the right man for Pep Guardiola’s side and his woeful debut in central midfield, a 2-0 defeat to Hercules, only appeared to vindicate that opinion.
When sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta said, “We’ve signed him because he can play in a number of positions,” it wasn’t entirely clear what Barcelona had seen to suggest there was more to the traditional Argentine number five.
However, Guardiola had seen something and it was just as well, as Mascherano admitted himself: “I knew in terms of being a regular starter I wasn’t going to be able to take Busquets’ place and I’d be an idiot if I thought I’ll play ahead of Xavi and Iniesta.”
A defensive shortage saw Pep turn to Mascherano but his positional understanding, anticipation, strength, intelligence and famously a last-ditch tackle on Nicklas Bendtner in the Champions League last-16 to deny a certain goal saw this perceived makeshift role transform into a whole new career.
Four La Liga titles, three Copa del Rey’s and two Champions League titles later, it has proved to be one of Guardiola’s greatest tactical shifts.
All of Mascherano’s best qualities were (and are) put to use in the back four and on reflection (and perhaps unfairly in comparison with Busquets) highlighted some deficiencies when playing in midfield.
Both Busquets’ and Mascherano’s primary function would be as ball-winner but the difference in speed and creativity of distribution makes an enormous difference and while the Argentine drops in between the central defenders and ponders over his pass, the team often lose momentum.
Argentina’s persistence with Mascherano in central midfield, compounded by partnering him with another defensively minded player like Lucas Biglia, has contributed to the disjointed and Messi-dependent side that is struggling to even qualify for the World Cup in Russia and it is baffling that Edgardo Bauza or his predecessors didn’t even experiment with this given the dearth of quality central defenders.
Addressing the midfield imbalance and, by default Mascherano’s role, will be one of the first challenges for the new Argentina coach and if, as the AFA have stated, that man is Jorge Sampaoli many speculate that El Jefecito will be the lynchpin of a new-look back three.
Speculation at club level continues to link Mascherano with a move away from the Camp Nou this summer with Samuel Umtiti looking increasingly likely to take his starting berth in Barcelona’s defence and the Argentinean veteran is all too aware of this: “One day I will not play for Barcelona anymore, I will go and play somewhere else and I’m sure I will do so as a central midfielder.”
Whether it’s a move to Italy, Turkey, a return to River Plate or to remain at Barca under new management it promises to be an interesting next step in Mascherano’s career.
There is absolutely no questioning Jefecito’s importance to Argentina and any club side that he may end up at but Guardiola’s tweak all those years back should perhaps now see the general lead his troops from the back rather than in the middle of the battlefield.