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Javier Mascherano Was Always The Backbone

Argentina's midfielder Javier Mascherano (L) vies with Netherlands' forward Arjen Robben (R) during the semi-final football match between Netherlands and Argentina of the FIFA World Cup at The Corinthians Arena in Sao Paulo on July 9, 2014.
Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

My favorite statistical oddity regarding Javier Mascherano—the former Barcelona, Liverpool, and Argentina midfielder/center back who announced his retirement on Sunday—was that he only scored one goal for Barça in eight seasons. You would be forgiven for thinking that a regular starter at one of the world’s biggest, most attack-minded clubs would bumble into a few goals, if only due to sheer collective dominance. But Mascherano was never the type to let a speculative long shot rip or, standing at a mere five-foot-nine, score a header from a corner.

Mascherano’s lone goal in Blaugrana came from the penalty spot in a blowout, his teammates gifting him the chance for a late-career celebratory moment:

Scoring goals was never the point of having Mascherano in the team. (Which was a good thing, since in his 796 career matches for club and country, the Argentine only scored eight times.) To have Mascherano in a team was to have a small but nearly impenetrable wall that would do anything to prevent a goal going into his own net.

Mascherano first came to prominence in his stint with Liverpool, where he served as the destroyer to Xabi Alonso’s builder and Steven Gerrard’s creator—three elite versions of the three archetypical roles of a well-balanced midfield. A €20 million move to Barcelona followed after three and a half seasons at Merseyside, and in Spain is where Mascherano went from a great player to an indispensable part of one of the most successful club sides of all time.

It’s easy to forget it now, knowing how his Barcelona years ended, but Mascherano had a tough time at the start of his career in Spain. The midfield destroyer entered a team built around the revolutionary idea that a team could master the game with only builders and creators at all 11 positions. Lacking the delicate touch and lightning-quick decision-making of his midfield partners, Mascherano did not have the natural game to thrive in his natural position.

But through trial, error, and sacrifice, Mascherano did find a way to put his mistake-erasing defensive capabilities to good use. With immaculate defensive interventions like his famous last-gasp tackle on Arsenal’s Nicklas Bendtner in a crucial Champions League tie—a tackle Mascherano has said changed his life at the club—the Argentine proved his value as the team’s enforcer.

Exhibitions like that convinced manager Pep Guardiola to convert Mascherano into a full-time center back. A move that appeared risky on paper proved genius in reality. From central defense, Mascherano could maximize both his world-class front-foot defending and his underrated passing range and accuracy from a position that, because of Barça’s high defensive line and possession dominance, was almost more akin to a defensive midfield role than that of a traditional center back.

Masche could clean up the midfield’s and forward’s mistakes before they had a chance to get too dangerous, Gerard Piqué could make up for Masche’s deficiencies as a penalty box defender, and in the most dire of moments when an opponent broke free, everyone could count on Mascherano to come flying in with an inch-perfect tackle to save the day. Mascherano came to a team where he didn’t really fit, and left eight seasons later with more than 300 appearances, five La Liga titles, five Copas del Rey, two European trophies, and a status as an unquestioned legend.

As important as he was to his club teams, Mascherano was an even bigger presence with his national team. With 147 caps, he has represented Argentina more than anyone else. Along with Lionel Messi, Mascherano was the figurehead of the successful but star-crossed Argentine generation that played in and lost three consecutive major tournament finals.

The 2014 World Cup might be Mascherano’s crowning achievement, if you can have one of those without coming away with the crown. Messi won the Golden Ball for the best player in the tournament, but Mascherano was just as good in his role as the team’s midfield general. Mascherano’s magnum opus during that tournament came in the semifinal against the Netherlands, again coming up big with a critical tackle. As the clock struck 90 minutes in a 0–0 deadlock, Dutchman Arjen Robben broke free into the box, seemingly ready to slot a near post shot by Argentina’s keeper, Sergio Romero, only for Mascherano to somehow catch up to the left-footed wizard and time his slide tackle to perfection to deny the chance:

Though it may be lost in translation, Mascherano later said that he tore his anus (“me abrí el ano“) on the tackle. That tackle allowed Argentina to recoup and eventually beat the Netherlands on penalties, en route to the ill-fated final against Germany.

Those were the critical plays Mascherano seemed to always make when his team needed them the most. Though other players’ indelible moments end with a boot through the ball, the ball speeding into the net, and the heroic goalscorer scampering off to celebrate, Mascherano’s career will be remembered for the times he thwarted other players’ dreams of an iconic goal, images of Mascherano straining every muscle and ligament in his body, laying everything on the line for a clutch tackle, afterwards him standing up sweating and grimacing and hobbling, suffering for the effort but ultimately victorious.