It seems like Javier Mascherano has been with us for a long time, but it’s only been two years. I was one of the many culés that, after his debut against Hércules in 2010, thought, “why did we sign him?“. His very first game as a Barça player wasn’t as fortunate as the rest of his appearances with the team. He was sent off and the team got a disappointing defeat at home.
Wearing a symbolic number, the 14, a number with huge significance for Barça, and nearly two years later, there are few of us that could explain Barça’s success and team spirit without Javier Mascherano. What has changed in so short a time?
Perhaps he was in a team, like Liverpool, that only used his defensive skills. It is always easier to defend in a team like Liverpool than one like Barça, where there are usually 2 or 3 defenders in front of an entire line of attackers. Maybe he just needed a chance to recover his vision and extreme sense of opportunity that led him to success at River Plate, in Argentina. Maybe he lost something in England that he regained at Barça. I don’t know. I do know that his humility, his willingness to learn and his incredible work rate led him to be that guy that we always miss when he’s not here, the player that makes us all think, “oh, we’re playing with 3 defenders, but there’s Mascherano, so we will be fine“.
It is not easy, for any defender, to play in a team like this. Many great players, being top class defenders, have failed to become irreplaceable. One needs a special sense of location, a speediness of mind that often only strikers have, an attentiveness to the rival’s early moves towards the keeper. But somehow, Mascherano is earning his place among that small group of players that can be labelled as top class.
First, as a central midfielder, he came in only when he was needed. “I can’t play because Busquets is better than me,” he once said, showing he knew his place in the team, but perhaps hiding his efforts and daily work aimed at leaving the substitutes bench. In several games, he was the man in charge of holding up the midfield, letting our wonder boys do their magic upfront and guarding the defense from being caught out of position.
Then, for different reasons, he was in charge of covering one of those key positions in central defense. Many of us felt doubts about the responsibility Pep Guardiola gave to Mascherano. Then he started to play. He did a great job. He became a crucial piece in the defense. How? In this case, the answer was easy: Javier had all the conditions and abilities to play in defense, but nobody before Guardiola saw them. Pep converted him, taking what was already there, the vision, the ability to always read the position correctly, and the sharp mind, and took Mascherano to a different level. Javier was humble enough to learn to play differently. The result is that today, culés can’t imagine Barça’s three or four man defense without him present. He has become irreplaceable not only due to all of his football qualities, but also due to the ones that make him an exceptional professional.
Barça has had all kind of fantastic, talented players in the past. However, some of them weren’t able to see beyond their own ego and learn. Mascherano not only stayed humble and learned but he has also became a role model for his team mates, one of those players that are capable of sticking a group together.
Mascherano became one of Pep’s favourites in one instant. For the rest of us, it took a while, but we finally noticed what our former coach saw in him: a great player with the potential to become a legend. Barça fans are not impressed by spectacular players, whom have existed on the team since its very first years, but by spectacular people, who show sacrifice and commitment through their work. Mascherano is one of them, a player that always make us feel safe.