Javier Mascherano, Argentina’s Rock

Why Lionel Messi’s Barcelona teammate may hold the key to Albiceleste’s success

Lionel Messi was, quite understandably, named man of the match of Argentina’s first four games. But Javier Mascherano is having just as big an influence on the Albiceleste’s World Cup campaign.

Mascherano has one of the most difficult jobs at the competition: to make coach Alejandro Sabella’s (or, according to widespread reporting, Messi’s) 4–3–3 system a success, and allow his higher-profile attacking teammates to shine. He’s no stranger to difficult tasks, having spent most of the last four seasons at center back for his club, despite being too small (5-7) and light (170 pounds) for the position. During that time he has won six trophies (including two La Liga titles and one Champions League), while also becoming one of the few “outsiders” to gain acceptance in the Camp Nou dressing room.

His emergence as a key figure at Barcelona has also been helped by a very close relationship with Messi. Guillem Balague’s recent biography of Messi says the two “bonded instantly” when they first met while winning the U–20 World Cup together in 2005, and their relationship was strengthened three years later when they won the Olympic Gold Medal in Beijing.

Mascherano instantly accepted Sabella’s decision in 2011 to take away his captain’s armband in favor of Messi. That change has been mostly symbolic, with “Masche” still the team’s most vocal leader, as seen when he was the one giving the inspirational talk before extra-time started against Switzerland last Tuesday. The situation is similar off the pitch, where the former Liverpool man has been an articulate defender of his colleagues in the local press.

“I’m better as a coach than as a player at this stage, no?” Mascherano jokingly began an interview in which he then expertly explained why Argentina had struggled in the first 45 minutes against Bosnia. He then deliberately debunked the idea that Messi had ordered a change of tactics and players at halftime in that game.

Whatever the truth is regarding Sabella’s switch back to a 4–3–3, that shape now has Mascherano as the deep midfield pivot alongside the more attack-minded Angel di Maria and Fernando Gago. So it’s no surprise that he was the competition’s top tackling midfielder through the group stages according to Whoscored.com.

Less predictable was Mascherano ranking third of all players for total passes completed through the tournament’s first three games, averaging 95 successful per game at 92 percent completion rate. Many of these balls were simple sideways passes to retain possession, but his first option is now often to look forward and try and find Messi early before opposition defenses get set.

Mascherano’s group-stage passing numbers were almost identical to those of widely-adored Italy playmaker Andrea Pirlo (90 passes completed at 93 percent success), and bettered those of Gago (82 at 92 percent) and Di Maria (59 at 81 percent). He also easily surpassed current Barça colleagues Xavi (78 at 91 percent) and Sergio Busquets (65 at 98 percent) for Spain, while far outshining former Liverpool teammates Xabi Alonso (53 at 89 percent) and Steven Gerrard (just 39 at 85 percent completion).

In his third World Cup, Mascherano has been the tournament’s outstanding midfielder so far. And his ability to win the ball back and use it well only grows in importance through the knockout rounds. His role as an articulate protector of both Sabella and Messi in the press is also vitally important in managing the mood around the team.

Former Albiceleste striker Claudio Caniggia highlighted this all-around influence ahead of Saturday’s quarterfinal with Belgium. “What Mascherano is doing is sensational,” Caniggia said. “He is playing at such a high level. The number of attacks he stops, the balls he recovers, the distance he runs, and how he keeps the team balanced. He is fundamental, almost the continuation of the coach on the pitch.”

Messi will likely continue to grab the headlines, but Argentina’s chances of winning this World Cup now depend almost equally on his Barcelona teammate.