Whether or not Javier Mascherano should supersede Sergio Busquets as Barcelona’s pivote has been a constant topic of discussion among culés this season and it has been addressed in my columns several times before. Mascherano’s start in midfield for Barça’s weekend victory over Granada brought the debate back to the fore and proved exactly why the Argentine should play there as little as possible.
While it’s undeniably true that Luis Enrique’s less regimented system has meant that the languid and occasionally cumbersome Busquets has looked out of place at times, the fact remains that no-one else is anywhere near as good as him tactically, technically or positionally. It’s impossible to overstate how important he is to this team.
This first half against Granada was a perfect example of Mascherano’s deficiencies as a pivote. The first and most obvious problem is that he’s not a natural pivote: he’s a classic Argentine cinco, a destroyer whose job is to protect the back four, break up opposition attacks and give the ball to more talented teammates.
If you’re thinking “hang on a minute – that’s what Busquets does!” you’re right, but Busquets does so much more than that. Perhaps the crucial difference between a cinco and a pivote, and consequently between Mascherano and Busquets, is the order and speed of their thoughts on the pitch.
For example, someone like Mascherano identifies danger, makes a tackle, looks around for options and then plays a pass. The process works, but it takes time. Busquets always knows where his teammates are, so he doesn’t need to look after he wins the ball. When he has to make a tackle or an interception, he will very often step in, win the ball and play a forward pass all in the same movement. It’s all done and dusted in the blink of an eye and Barça are back on the attack.
Another crucial difference between a cinco and a true pivote is their positioning when the defence has the ball. Someone like Mascherano will come towards the ball, take it from a centre-back and play the first pass out. It doesn’t really matter if the centre-back can play the pass himself or not: football in Argentina is rooted so heavily in routine that the cinco’s right to play the first pass out is never questioned. He just does it, as Mascherano does here.
Yes, Busquets often comes deep, dropping in as a third centre-back, but more often than not he trusts the defenders’ ability to play the first pass and stays ten to fifteen yards ahead of them. This actually makes defenders’ lives easier: not only is he usually open as a passing option himself, simply by standing there he attracts opposition players’ attention and this creates space for the interiores to receive the ball, be they Xavi, Rakitić, Iniesta or Rafinha. It also means those players have another passing option in close proximity as soon as they receive the ball, which further speeds up Barça’s play.
Time and time again on Saturday, Mascherano dropped deep to start moves and ended up passing square to the full-backs, which meant Barça very slowly gained precisely zero ground. By moving so far away from the midfield, Mascherano left himself with no options. Rakitić and Xavi were never going to drop back with him – he should have done as Busquets does, staying a few yards higher up the pitch and trusting the centre-backs to select the right option themselves.
Contrast Mascherano’s passing in the middle third of the pitch here to Busquets’ in Barça’s recent away game to Athletic Club. The difference in quantity and in variety says it all.
So slow and ponderous were Barça when Mascherano had the ball that within the first 28 minutes of the match Lionel Messi had become frustrated and dropped back to the pivote position himself. This meant a pretty much complete collapse in team structure and attacking co-ordination: with Messi so deep, the front three was a man down and the midfield had to adjust to fill that space.
In this mood Messi tends to make somewhat silly decisions and after the below screengrab was taken, he tried a hopeless Hail Mary pass over the top for Suárez that was easily cut out.
I suppose criticising Mascherano is only giving half of the story here. The fact is that Busquets is still Barcelona’s most underrated player and possibly their most important besides Messi. In a week in which Busquets signed a new contract at Barça, we received a reminder of just how brilliant he is and he didn’t even have to kick a ball.
As for Mascherano, he’s still an excellent footballer and he’d be a very good midfielder for almost any other side, but Luis Enrique is making a mistake every time he uses him anywhere except the centre of defence. Mascherano may be able to spot danger and nullify it as quickly as anyone, but technically and positionally he’s nowhere near good enough.