The most overrated player in world football?
Although every football fan in the world recognises the genius of the likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi, Arjen Robben and Andres Iniesta, there are always one or two heavily lauded players who split opinion. For me, one of those players is Javier Mascherano.
I have seen Mascherano play countless times for both Liverpool and Argentina (though admittedly not at West Ham, where he wasn’t deemed good enough by Alans Pardew and Curbishley to displace Hayden Mullins from the starting eleven) and have yet to see the Argentine justify all the hyberbole that surrounds his performances in his preferred holding role.
Don’t get me wrong, Mascherano is by no means a bad player – he can pass the ball competently, tackle (reasonably) effectively and has a decent engine. But is he really worthy of all the exalted praise that comes his way? During his short stint as national coach Diego Maradona famously said that Argentina was a team of “Mascherano and 10 others”, while his old Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez was equally effusive in his praise, describing him as a ‘monster of a player’.
How Mascherano could be on the teamsheet before the world’s best player Lionel Messi is a debate for another day, but what was equally puzzling was Maradona’s decision to play the 26-year-old in the defensive midfield role at the expense of Esteban Cambiasso, a far more effective and experienced campaigner. A look at their respective trophy cabinets would validate that argument, with Cambiasso playing a pivotal role in Inter Milan’s treble-winning campaign last year while Mascherano has yet to lay his hands on a single trophy in his three years on Merseyside. The amount of needless fouls Mascherano concedes with reckless and ill-timed challenges also makes him a less than aesthetically-pleasing player to watch for the neutral supporter.
Cambiasso also offers more of a threat going forward, chipping in with four goals last season, including a vital strike against Chelsea in the Champions League knockout stages. Mascherano has a miserable three goals to his name in three seasons at Anfield, and rarerly breaks forward to support Liverpool or indeed Argentine attacks, preferring to sit deep and take the ball from the nearest centre-half before passing it sideways, much like ‘The Crab’ Ray Wilkins did in his pomp.
Comparisons with Claude Makelele, arguably the most effective player in that defensive holding role in the modern era, are similarly wide of the mark. Again, one glance at Makelele’s record at Real Madrid and Chelsea will tell you he has been much more effective in that role than Argentina’s captain. Indeed, his sale to the West Londoners at the height of the Galactico era coincided with Madrid’s trophyless run and Chelsea’s renaissance as a major force in English football. Zinedine Zidane summed up the feeling among the Madrid players when he said of his compatriots departure: “Why put another layer of gold paint (David Beckham) on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”
Of course, you could argue, and with good reason, that Makelele and Cambiasso have played in better sides than Mascherano. That may be true, but both players have become the heartbeat of their respective club teams, driving them forward and creating opportunities for their team-mates. Mascherano, on the other hand, seems to operate in such a small area of the field that he is never likely to take up that mantle.
Perhaps the game that exposed Mascherano’s limitations more than any other was Argentina’s 4-0 thrashing by Germany in this summer’s World Cup. In this case, you couldn’t say that Mascherano was lining up in the less talented side. In the opposing team, Bastian Schweinsteiger, a relative novice in the deep-lying role, taught the Argentine a brutal lesson on how to break up attacks, protect your defence and distribute the ball before joining in with a swift counter attack.
Mascherano admittedly had a huge job on his hands trying to provide protection for a back four that featured the hapless Martin Demechelis and Nicolas Otamendi, but by all accounts he put in a wretched performance in Cape Town as Argentina’s World Cup dreams imploded in embarassing fashion. And it’s not like he was taken by surprise by the Germans set-up – they had played in exactly the same way in their 4-1 thrashing of England in the previous round. As captain, it was his responsibility to bring some order to the chaos around him, organise his team-mates on the pitch and keep their heads up when they went a goal behind early on.
In the event, Schweinsteiger bossed the midfield with such ease it is surprising that Mascherano’s stock remains so high this summer. Perhaps £30m from Inter Milan for his services would be the best bit of business Liverpool could do this summer.