As a defensive midfielder, Javier Mascherano was under-appreciated almost by definition. But in the case of the 36-year-old Argentine, who called time on his long and illustrious career over the weekend, that notion always felt particularly pertinent. They say artists are only truly appreciated when they are gone; Mascherano wasn’t the most skilful or gifted footballer to ever grace the pitch, but he certainly left a void when he departed any club he played for. It is no different now that he has left the game for good.
Whether it be alongside Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso at Liverpool or Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets at Barcelona, Mascherano was always in the shadows. At the Camp Nou, he was deployed as a centre back almost instantly after arriving in 2010 due to questions over his passing ability and Carles Puyol’s seemingly never-ending injury troubles. The doubts over his quality in possession were indicative of his surroundings rather than any shortcomings in his game; it was testament to his class, and what Pep Guardiola thought of him, that he played and thrived out of position in perhaps the greatest club side that has ever played football. In 2010/11, his debut season, he impressed in defence as Barcelona beat Manchester United in the Champions League final.
Perhaps it seemed easy to play the role on the night of arguably one of the purest performances of the Guardiola era, with Xavi, Iniesta and Lionel Messi untouchable, but that says more about Mascherano than anything else. He didn’t leave Cataluña until 2018, moving to China and then returning to Argentina with Estudiantes to see out his days as a footballer. His nickname was El Jefe (the chief), and he left his mark in La Liga, just as he did the Premier League. Mascherano quit Liverpool at the same time as Rafael Benitez, after a disappointing seventh-placed finish at Anfield but just a year after coming second. Xabi Alonso had joined Real Madrid a year earlier, but it took the Reds years to recover from the breakup of that midfield.
Now they are achieving greatness beyond anything in the last 30 years under Jurgen Klopp but it is difficult to make a case that their current central line up is as good as it was between 2007 and 2010, when Mascherano brought an ill-fated and bizarre six month spell at West Ham United to a close.
It has been a difficult era for the Argentine national team for some time now; they haven’t won anything since 1993, a fact that has too often been levelled at Messi to denounce his claims of being the greatest player ever to live. La Albiceleste have never been short on talent, which is why it is such a mystery why this 27-year draught is continuing today. But squad balance has been a consistent issue; too many elite level attackers have been shoehorned into the team at the expense of a significantly weaker defence
Mascherano was a constant, patrolling the midfield and providing at least a slice of the required tactical balance. Given the chaos that has gone on around both himself and Messi, a return of three final defeats, at the World Cup in 2014 and back-to-back Copa Americas in 2015 and 2016, shouldn’t be viewed as the failure it so often is by many.
The spotlight was never meant for Mascherano, but his reputation developed as ‘the goods in the back’. At Liverpool, his temperament and proficiency for conning referees was often the focus, while at Barcelona, as with Argentina, he let the plethora of world class players around him take the glory. That job usually fell to Gerrard and Fernando Torres on Merseyside, but in Spain, that quality was all around him. His importance to Barcelona became clearer after Guardiola’s reign ended and success declined in regularity. His experience became crucial, and he soon began to play in midfield more, especially after Xavi’s exit after 2014/15 treble season under Luis Enrique.
Every team needed a Mascherano, and those that had him didn’t want anybody else. In many ways, he was destined for a career away from the limelight regardless, but the fact he has played in such era-defining teams with players like he did means that his contributions were often overlooked and undervalued more than most. His ball-playing abilities improved and he gradually became more than simply a cog in the Barcelona engine. Six La Liga titles, five Copa del Reys and two Champions Leagues show just how crucial he was.
Written off, ignored and often belittled, Javier Mascherano didn’t get what he deserved in terms of his reputation as a player. He won’t be on many all time XI lists, but his career stands for itself. Perhaps now it is over, he will be remembered the way he should be.
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