Disclaimer right away: This article is by no means a criticism of Javier Mascherano. He is a living legend at the club and one of my favorite players ever. The six years he’s been a member of the team have been fruitful – 18 trophies – and he’s been a great contributor to winning. He’s not afraid to get down and dirty defensively and has brought grit to our back line. But he’s essentially been playing out of position for six years. Which is why it’s not blasphemy, in my opinion, to suggest he ought to be replaced by Samuel Umtiti. Not permanently, of course. Mascherano is still a tremendous player and one that can still play a major role in the team. But his play so far this season has showed something that Barcelona fans of recent years might have just forgotten. Mascherano isn’t a center back. He’s been converted into one by Barça. He played in the midfield for the most part with Liverpool and West Ham, and continues to play in the midfield for his national team of Argentina:
Barcelona, of course, infamously now, lost to Alavés, and it wasn’t all Mascherano’s fault, as the team was heavily rotated and sluggish after the recent international break. But the second goal against Barça came when he missed the ball, inadvertently giving it away in the box. Now, any one can miss a kick, but Mascherano had been put under pressure and playing poorly all day. In fact, another writer on this site called it possibly “the worst game” of Mascherano’s Barça career in the player ratings for the game. While anyone can miss a kick, his miss of the kick was influenced by his play and the position he was put in.
Mascherano is an intelligent footballer, and his move to center back has been largely successful. He’s been able to adjust well over the past six years, and been a solid contributor. But in games like the one against Alavés, he was overwhelmed and unable. And his center back partner, Jérémy Mathieu, had a good match, scoring a goal and using his speed to play solid defense. His side of the box was never really in danger. Both goals came through Mascherano, the first when he didn’t mark his man, and the second one, of course, the error.
This is where Umtiti comes in. He might be available for the game against Deportivo on Sunday, recovering from his injury. Umtiti, unlike Mascherano, is a natural center back. He’s come in as a 22 year old and been very solid in the defense. In fact, he’s shown shades of Mascherano in that he’s not scared to make a hard tackle or pull off an occasional handball if no one’s looking.
But he has one thing so far this season that hasn’t been seen in Mascherano: a security at the back. He’s a stout defender and having him at the back this season with Gerard Piqué has been our best pairing by far. Masche has looked shaky so far. Especially in the right center back role he was in when Barcelona lost that day to a recently promoted side.
Masche is still very good at the position, but he doesn’t need to play center back always. If he can move into his holding midfield role he plays for Argentina, with Piqué and Umtiti at the back, well then the team might be that much better defensively. Playing Mascherano in a different position occasionally will also have an added benefit: time off for Sergio Busquets.
Busi has played a lot recently and been under a lot of pressure, and not just for Barcelona. The Spanish national team has featured Busquets heavily and his essential tactical position for both Barça and Spain mean a lot of the play will be directed through him. At times, Luis Enrique will move Busi back to help the defense when the left and right back push up, creating a 3 man defense. He’s also been shaky so far this season, but it’s through no fault of his own. People talk about players like Paul Pogba experiencing burnout. But often overlooked is Busquets.
Luis Enrique has tried to remedy that situation this year by playing André Gomes out of position to cover for Busi, not allowing him to play his true position. By playing Mascherano as a midfielder, they can play Umtiti at center back (meaning when Luis Enrique creates a 3 man defense, Mascherano will join Pique and Umtiti, adding defense). This will rest Busquets, and allow André Gomes to play more naturally. Not only will the defense be shored up, but Mascherano can thrive in the midfield and play almost an Ivan Rakitić role – bringing toughness and defensive focus to break up plays in the midfield. In that way, Rakitić can now rest or focus his energies more on offense. It’s a chain of movement with several benefits.
Playing Umtiti more wouldn’t just affect his position. It would create different looks that Luis Enrique can throw out to his advantage when the situation calls for it. And neither would it displace Mascherano. In fact, the club is preparing to extend Masche’s contract until 2019, showing they continue to regard him as a vital member of the team. It’s just that Barça hasn’t had a true center back to pair with Piqué for years, and now that we have one who’s settling in so well, we might need to use him just a bit more.