It appears that Javier Mascherano has played his last game for Liverpool. Reports today suggest that he expects the club to make good the agreement apparently reached last summer that he would give Liverpool one more season. He gave one more season and now he wants out. Clearly Liverpool need to strengthen the team, and players need to be sold in order to do this. Of Liverpool’s 3 most marketable players Mascherano is probably the easiest to sell, as far as Liverpool fans are concerned.
It is hard to find many complaints about Mascherano leaving, but while he may be the lesser of the three jewels in Liverpool’s drooping crown but he will be very difficult to replace. Part of the reason for the lack of love for el jefecito might be that he doesn’t often catch the eye like Torres and Gerrard. His game is more destructive than creative. But what a destroyer he is. Like many other observers Diego Milito thinks he is the best defensive midfielder in the world. His (for now…) international manager, Diego Maradona said that when he picks his Argentina side, for him it is “Mascherano and 10 others”.
Players like Mascherano go in and out of fashion in English football and the latest rise of this midfield general owes a lot to Claudio Ranieri. In 2003 when he signed Claude Makélélé he proclaimed he would be “the battery of the team” and he is arguably the best signing of the Abramovich period at Chelsea so far. Makélélé had been at Real Madrid previously and when he was sold and David Beckham bought, Zinedine Zidane summed up the move with a beautiful quote, “Why put another layer of golden paint on the Bentley when you have sold the engine?” Madrid never adequately replaced him and their loss was Chelsea’s gain. His style of play was deceptively simple, he role was to protect the back four by breaking up attacks before they start. He would look to cut out through balls and tackle runners from the opposing midfield and lay the ball off to his midfield counter-parts. The pass was always simple and it nearly always worked.
Mascherano himself said he learnt a lot from Matias Almeyda and Diego Simeone but the player he most wanted to be like was Makélélé. Makélélé and Mascherano combine well with a more creative deep-lying midfielder. Mascherano’s best season at Liverpool was in 2008-09 when he played alongside Xabi Alonso. When Benitez ensured Alonso would leave, he took with him Liverpool’s form and Mascherano’s midfield accomplice. Lucas Leiva has great potential but to fill Alonso’s place was a lot to expect. Liverpool struggled to protect their back four and what was once the Premier League’s meanest defence became porous. They also struggled to provide the link to the front players that Alonso found so easy.
In truth Makélélé played for one season under Ranieri and then flourished when Jose Mourinho took over following the Tinkerman’s sacking. The tactically astute and demanding Mourinho played football that suited Makélélé, and at Liverpool Benitez played football that suited Mascherano. Roy Hodgson’s preferred formation at Liverpool remains to be seen, however losing Mascherano and a pressing need to strengthen in other areas may mean an end to two defensive midfielders.
His likely destination is Serie A and a reunion with Benitez at Internazionale. Javier Mascherano would improve any team he joined, however it may take some adjustment to the Italian style of play and particularly the referees. His combative nature and all-action midfield displays always saw him on the edge of laws of the game. Last season he had the worst disciplinary record in the Premier League with 9 yellows and 2 red cards. The received wisdom is that the referees are more lenient in England and let more fouls go in order to let the game flow. Whether this is true or not is difficult to say but a player like Mascherano is not going to change his style of play quickly, and it is safe to say that if he got cautioned a lot in England, he will get cautioned a lot in Italy.
The asking price for Mascherano is rumoured to be around £25m, money Liverpool sorely need to provide for a new left-back or two and further support up-front for Fernando Torres, as well as a replacement for Mascherano. This has become more urgent as Torres wants to see sufficient investment in the team before he commits to another season with Liverpool. If the money received is swiftly re-invested in the team I think Torres will stay. If he leaves the Liverpool hierarchy will see much more protests from the fans than when Mascherano goes.
I, for one, will remain a fan of el jefecito and look forward to seeing him terrorising opposition midfields in Serie A next season.