Many doubted Javier Mascherano would adapt to Barcelona’s authentic style of play upon arriving in Catalonia for a fee in the region of €24m from Liverpool in 2010. Whilst he has indeed not been a first-team regular in the club’s midfield, Mascherano’s next appearance – potentially against Real Madrid tonight – will be his 100th in all competitions for La Blaugrana. It will come with the player having developed himself as one of the side’s primary defenders.
The Argentine undoubtedly possessed the passing exploits necessary to compete for a berth in the Catalans’ midfield upon his arrival two years ago, but his time in England had led the majority of supporters to believe he was merely a brute force in the middle of the park.
Tactical geniuses Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta required protection from the third central player in then Coach Pepe Guardiola’s 4-3-3 system, but home grown talent Sergio Busquets already occupied that particular position. Former River Plate man Mascherano didn’t look like he’d get much of a look-in.
Whilst that has proven to be the case in midfield, the Argentine has not struggled for first-team football in Catalonia, nor has he struggled to show exactly what his worth to the side is.
Pep Guardiola’s decision to try him out at centre-back was initially borne out of necessity more than ambition – Carles Puyol was heading into his advanced years and beyond Gerard Pique, central defensive alternatives were light on the ground.
However, such has been his development in the position, new Coach Tito Vilanova is understood to now favour him in the back-line for his reliability, just as predecessor Guardiola began to by the end of 2011-12.
The 28-year-old played almost exclusively as a defender for Barcelona last term and whilst he offered another passing outlet for the possession-based side, he was also the team’s most consistent performer in defensive duties.
That he outdid the rest of the Barca team for the most interceptions and most successful tackles last term is indicative of his new-found prowess in defence. Coupled with a team-high number of successful offside traps sprung last year and a less-than one-a-game foul average, Mascherano has statistically demonstrated a reading of the game that his side have now come to rely on.
“He is not very different from Puyol,” Pique recently reflected. “He likes to assist Busquets in pressing the opposition and he is very good in the air.
“He anticipates a player’s movement very well.”
Defending a narrow 3-2 lead at the Santiago Bernabeu for Wednesday’s Super Cup second leg, Barcelona may just give Mascherano’s 100th appearance for the club – and 60th at centre-back – the best stage in which to demonstrate that his first position is now defender.
And as the player admitted himself last week: “I could not see myself playing anywhere else.”