Guardiola uses Mascherano at centre-back in 1-0 win over Shakhtar

April 13, 2011

Javier Mascherano

There were no major surprises in Barcelona’s 1-0 win over Shakhtar on Tuesday night.

5-1 up from the first leg, they were fairly comfortable in Ukraine, keeping possession for long periods and winning the game with a Lionel Messi goal shortly before half time.

That is, until you consider Barcelona’s line-up, where Javier Mascherano started as a right-sided centre-back, alongside Gerard Pique.

Barcelona have had a problem at centre-back in the last couple of months. Carles Puyol’s long-term injury problems coupled with Eric Abidal’s serious illness mean they’re very short at the back, especially having let go two centre-backs last summer – Rafael Marquez and Dmytro Chygrynskiy. Neither of them featured much last season, but in terms of pure numbers, Barcelona are very light there. Only Pique, Gabriel Milito and Andreu Fontas are fit, and recognised centre-backs.

With Milito terribly slow and Fontas extremely inexperienced, Guardiola’s solution in recent weeks has been to pair Pique and Sergio Busquets at the back. Busquets is more of a holding midfielder than a centre-back, but he has played at the back in a three-man defence in the past, and has adjusted reasonably well to playing as part of a back four.

The first leg of this tie caused Busquets and Pique problems, however. Neither are particularly quick – a big issue considering Barcelona always press, and therefore play a high defensive line. The pace of Puyol or Abidal was sorely missed. Shakhtar created numerous good chances by simply playing the ball over the defence for Luiz Adriano to run onto, and would have gone ahead were it not for some wasteful finishing.

Therefore, for the second leg, Busquets returned to his holding midfield position, switching places with Mascherano. At 5′8, Mascherano is hardly the commanding figure you’d expect for a defender, so the only logical explanation for Guardiola deploying him there is for his pace. This might also seem strange – Mascherano has never appeared a particularly quick player, but then in the central midfield zone, we rarely see him tested for speed. On a similar note, we never really saw that Busquets lacked pace until he was used at centre-back, where it was more obvious.

How did he do? Largely as you would expect – he was good with his tackles on the floor, but largely struggled in aerial challenges, as his mixed ‘tackles’ chalkboard shows:

Mascherano's tackles

He was more comfortable when doing what comes naturally – moving up the pitch and intercepting short passes into feet:

However, in a way, that slightly contradicts the apparently purpose of him playing at centre-back. If he’s constantly coming up the pitch towards play, Pique will still have to cover for him, and the Spaniard’s lack of pace will again be exposed. Mascherano’s performance was solid, but perhaps not quite the solution Barcelona need.

Pique praised Mascherano for his display, saying, “Mascherano is a very fast and intelligent player. He has the quality to adapt to any position”, whilst Dani Alves said simply, “Mascherano was superb at centre-back.”

Guardiola explained his decision after the match. ”I wanted his speed at the back, and also his experience”, he said. It’s an option we have until the end of the year, and also in the future. He is very disciplined.”

It remains to be seen whether Mascherano will play there in Barcelona’s run-in. First and foremost, he is suspended for the weekend’s Clasico – but with three more games against Real Madrid probably coming up, his new-found versatility may be useful.

Chalkboards from TotalFootball

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