One more sliding tackle: remembering Javier Mascherano’s contributions to Barcelona
In the past couple of years, it’s been tough to fight off tears in the Camp Nou. Both on and off the pitch. The amazing comeback against PSG brought out screams and cries of joy from the Catalan faithful. Departures from greats such as Xavi and Dani Alves were tough goodbyes. Especially the former, who left while the Catalans went on a trophy tear. When Andres Iniesta hangs up his boots and Lionel Messi decides to go back home to Argentina to play for his boyhood club will certainly be another tough moment to keep emotions inwards. Feelings of nostalgia and thankfulness were shared and will continued to be shared as players from eras of Barcelona’s glory days fade away into the distance. Those feelings were brought back into the forefront when Barcelona said goodbye to one of their most underrated players in Javier Mascherano.
The Argentinian centre back said goodbye in an emotional press conference as he announced his departure to the Chinese Club Hebei China Fortune. With the arrival of Yerry Mina and the emergence of Samuel Umtiti, you could see the writing of Mascherano’s departure on the wall from a mile away. But that doesn’t mean we should ever forget about his contributions to the Catalan giants.
Mascherano arrived in Barcelona in 2010 and despite struggling in his first year, there were signs of his true value already. Even with his small stature, Mascherano was one of Barcelona’s grittiest and toughest defenders. He wasn’t afraid to put his body on the line, making key tackles and with the occasional goal line clearance. The clearance against Arsenal in 2010 was key in the Catalans turning around a tie which saw them enter the Nou Camp down 2-1. He would do whatever it took to do his job. Yes, there were times where his gambles backfired and it saw him getting sent off or a horrible mistake. But usually Mascherano made the correct play at just the right time. Mascherano was also one of Barcelona’s most intelligent players and his positioning was always crucial to what made him a good defender.
Mascherano was rarely caught out and had a knack of reading plays right before they happen. We saw this in the 2014 World Cup semi-final when Mascherano made one of the plays of the tournament against the Netherlands. With barely any minutes left in regular time, Arjen Robben hopped through the Argentina defense and looked to break the hearts of a country hungry for a World Cup. However, El Jefecito had other ideas. He sprinted to towards Robben and as soon as the winger took a shot with his wicked left foot, Mascherano stuck out his leg. For a moment time stood still as the ball bounced off Mascherano’s foot and trickled out for a corner. If Mascherano hadn’t timed that perfectly, it could have been a miracle ending for Netherlands. In a game decided by the little moments, Mascherano’s tackle is remembered as one which saved the game for Argentina.
Another moment that sticks out was when he helped Marc Andre Ter-Stegen save a penalty against Sergio Aguero in the UCL a couple of years ago. After giving up a penalty to Man City, the former Atletico Madrid striker stepped up and looked to get a goal back for a City team which desperately needed one. However, the goal never came as his penalty shot was pushed away by Ter-Stegen. It was later revealed via replay that standing behind Aguero was Mascherano and he was pointing in a direction. One which he thought Aguero was going and Ter-Stegen should dive to his right. The goalie took the advice of his elder centre back and was rewarded.
In a team full of players with tons of finesse and flair, Mascherano acted as the antithesis to that. He added a side of Barcelona which wasn’t the majority emotion but one which was needed.
Like others before him, Mascherano made the necessary sacrifices to his game in order to help the team succeed. Naturally a holding midfielder, Mascherano played a majority if not all of his minutes at centre back. It was not a perfect fit, given his height but Mascherano made it work. Again, he showed no fear and didn’t let his small stature be picked apart by some of the best attackers in the world. He acted as Barcelona’s main centre back for a good number of years during his 7 and a half spell in the Camp Nou. Right alongside Gerard Pique, Mascherano provided stability to the Barcelona backline. When Carlos Puyol stepped aside, Mascherano stepped in and did it brilliantly. His flexibility and willingness to change positions is what helped Barcelona keep their key midfield together.
Mascherano never was attacking like Messi was, a magical passer like Xavi or Iniesta. He wasn’t controversial like Pique or had the speed of Alves or Jordi Alba. But his importance to Barcelona in this past decade should not go under the carpet. He was a warrior and put his blood, sweat, and heart onto the field. You know how much it meant to Mascherano when he walked out of his departure press conference in tears. One of the most rugged players Barcelona has had in the Messi era, Mascherano was one whose plays often went unnoticed but it looked like he genuinely didn’t mind. He was just doing his job and helping Barcelona win. That’s all that mattered.