With the retirement of club legend Carles Puyol, Barcelona were in need of a vocal presence, a commanding figure in the back line to make sure everything ticked according to their clock. While he may not be a direct replacement for the Spaniard, Mark Ooi feels that Javier Mascherano is proving to be the voice that Barcelona need.
In every defence, there is a leader. There has to be one player who is tasked with organizing the back-line as well as keeping everyone in-check and fully-focused. Naturally, there is a specific reliance on this player. For Pep Guardiola’s Barça, Carles Puyol would be the first name that comes to mind in such an instance. Likewise, in today’s Barca, Javier Mascherano fits this bill. His nickname – El Jefecito (“The little boss” in Spanish) – succinctly encapsulates this characteristic.
Mascherano’s quality is not in doubt. He is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world and proved that in last year’s World Cup in Brazil as one of the best players in the tournament. So highly was he rated as a teenage talent that he prodigiously made his senior Argentina debut before his senior club debut for River Plate. The bite, aggression and intensity that he plays with is married to leadership and an exquisite level of tact that comes from his perceptive game-reading ability. Allied to all that is the technical ability and technique to contribute positively to his team’s build-up play from the back, which was one of the prerequisites to him joining Pep’s Barça.
In the glorious Pep era, the extreme intense “6-second rule” pressing from the front and the telepathic fluidity of the midfield trio – Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta – meant that the amount of times the defence had to clean up was on average of minimal quantity and frequency. The team truly defended as a whole, in perfect synergy with a line in the official club anthem El Cant Del Barça – Tots units fem força (Together we are stronger). Even then, for the threats that got past the press, Gerard Piqué and Puyol were there to sweep up the danger, with Víctor Valdés playing his role as a sweeper-keeper claiming most of the balls that were played in behind Piqué and Puyol. They played at a high standard and were, arguably most importantly, extremely consistent. There was an air of security for the fans, with the supreme confidence that such a defence allowed us to feel.
Since Puyol’s decline, Piqué’s form has glaringly dropped off from the world class levels that the ex-Manchester United centre-back previously displayed. Piqué has thus far shown that he needs a demanding partner alongside him in order to keep the Catalan in check and fully-focused. That said, I should note that Piqué has, over the course of this season till today, shown a positive trajectory in his form and has been much improved from before. Hopefully that continues to be the case. With Puyol now retired, El Jefecito can step up and be that leader in defence. That would not be exclusively in central defence per se but in the defensive side of Barça’s game in general. The Argentine has that insatiable hunger and drive to push on and always demand more of both himself and his teammates regardless of what has been achieved or whether Barça are ahead comfortably by X number of goals. After all, the teams that win titles tend to have the best defensive statistics over the relevant time period. The mindset that Puyol had – 1 goal conceded is 1 goal too many – must be replicated in order for Barça to experience another prolonged period of success.
Granted, it would be impossible to replace Puyol, like-for-like. The main selling point here is that Mascherano could bring something similar to the team. Hence, it makes perfect sense that he is increasingly being given a more central role at Barça by Luis Enrique.
“I’ve always identified myself as a worker. I am someone that perhaps wasn’t born with the same talent as other top players but I have always put in a lot of hard work and that has taken me to where I am now.” Mascherano in December 2014
“We’ll see him in both positions during the season.” Luis Enrique in Summer 2014
“I saw Mascherano mainly as centreback, but now I see he can also help us in midfield.” Luis Enrique in October 2014
“It’s not easy to sign a centre-back. The one you like has already committed himself to another team. Barcelona wants to reinforce their backline, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who can do better than Mascherano, Pique and Bartra.” Carles Puyol in July 2014
One of the main criticisms of Mascherano has been his height, i.e. his lack of it. However, the main skill a top centre-half must have is to be extremely perceptive in reading the game and always being one step ahead of the opposition. Fabio Cannavaro, standing at a full 1.76m, was a prominent exponent of short central defenders and, throughout his career, excelled despite his height. The Italian even won the Ballon d’Or after captaining Italy to World Cup glory in 2006. It is not in doubt that El Jefecito is extremely adept at reading the game. Another useful tool is to be aggressive in the tackle and to be brave in putting one’s head whether other players wouldn’t dare to put their feet. This bravery and defend-by-any-means attribute is one that the Argentine has exemplified throughout his career. One could even say that Mascherano is the very personification of that.
A rather fitting way of illustrating what Puyol brought to the team can be seen in the recent Qatar Airways advertisement, with Puyol featuring for a brief moment – a flower pot had fallen from a height and was going to hit a woman on the head when Puyol came in to save the day by heading it away. This intensity and selfless team-first mentality was one that Puyol exemplified. Mascherano is no like-for-like replacement for Puyol, but he sure brings much of that same crucial yet unquantifiable quality to the table.
Written by Mark Ooi
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