Midfield dynamo Javier Mascherano is proving to be the odd one out amongst the world class jewels littering the Camp Nou.
Pursued since the summer of 2009, the Argentina captain arrived at Barca from Liverpool on a four-year contract at the beginning of this season for an estimated fee of 22 million euros.
While he was never going to be gifted a place in the settled midfield of the La Liga champions, few observers would have predicted just how underwhelming his first season in Spain has been to date.
After emerging from the youth ranks under Pep Guardiola, Sergio Busquets has made the deepest position in Barca’s midfield three his own—behind the untouchable pair Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
That being said, the departure of Yaya Toure to Manchester City appeared to have left space for Mascherano to vie with Busquets and Seydou Keita for a semi-regular place in the starting 11.
He arrived from Anfield with a reputation as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world.
A key part of Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool team alongside Xabi Alonso, his departure—combined with that of Alonso the season before—played a major part in Liverpool’s sharp decline from the upper reaches of the Premier League table.
But he has only started eight matches for Barca this season, compared with 16 starts for Busquets.
Keita has also started eight games, but has tellingly been preferred from the substitutes bench 13 times to Mascherano’s seven.
While his talent remains beyond question, it would appear with the benefit of hindsight that the 26-year-old may be uniquely unsuited to Barca’s particular brand of football.
Guardiola’s dogmatic insistence on high tempo, pressing tactics when (rarely) out of possession has guided the team to the summit of the European game.
Ironically, arch-stopper Mascherano is perhaps too confrontational to suit Barca’s particular brand of passive aggression.
Rather than close down and stand-up an opponent to force a mistake, the fiery Argentine is hard-wired to commit the challenge, always with gusto and often going to ground—a tendency encouraged by four years in the hurly burly of English football.
Tellingly, he has committed just four fouls less than Busquets this season, despite starting 50 percent less matches.
He has also picked up four yellow cards compared with Busquets’ two and Keita’s one.
Guardiola’s actions in Barca’s 2-1 home win over Athletic Bilbao on Sunday were instructive of Mascherano’s standing in the pecking order.
With Carlos Puyol still sidelined, Busquets dropped into the centre-back position alongside Gerard Pique, affording Mascherano a rare start from the kick-off.
But with Bilbao holding their own and the hosts struggling for rhythm, Mascherano was the first man to be sacrificed, substituted in favour of fullback Maxwell.
The switch allowed Eric Abidal to move to centre back and Busquets to return to his familiar position at the base of the midfield.
Normal service resumed and Lionel Messi struck the winning goal 12 minutes from time, with a rueful Mascherano looking on from the substitutes bench.
Some have suggested that Guardiola will choose to deploy the misfit as additional security in the latter stages of the Champions League.
But if Mascherano’s struggle to conform continues, his presence in the elimination rounds may prove more of a risk than an insurance measure.
And with Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas surely destined to one day return to Camp Nou, it is difficult to envisage a long-term role for the Argentine ugly duckling in the current Barca set-up.
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