Mascherano's compatibility with Barcelona's style questioned
Critics have blamed Javier Mascherano for Barcelona's loss to Herculés
Mascherano was bought only when Barcelona failed to get Fabregas
Mascherano's adaptation to Barcelona's style of play could be difficult
The question got straight to the point -- and, though it appeared innocuous enough, the point was a sharp one.
"Have you learned any Catalan yet?"
Javier Mascherano just looked a little bemused and mumbled something about how, erm, well, y'know, I will. Deep down, he could have been forgiven for thinking: "Of course not, you complete idiot. What kind of stupid question is that? I've been here only a week. Give me a chance, will you?"
Except that had he done so, the answer might even have been: No, we won't. Patience is not a virtue with which his inquisitors are blessed; it is not a virtue with which football fans are naturally blessed. And that's exactly the kind of question he'll be forced to field more often than he would like. Rarely are judgments made quicker than at Madrid and Barcelona; nowhere are conclusions drawn, debates sparked and stoked, quicker than in the Spanish sports media.
However irrelevant it is -- after all, Andres Iniesta and Leo Messi have shown little inclination to speak much Catalan and no one's proposing booting them out of the Camp Nou, or questioning their commitment and suitability to the cause -- asking Mascherano about his language skills was another way of wondering if he's the right man for FC Barcelona at all. Never mind that he's not the most eloquent player in Spanish. It was another doubt.
And there are doubts that are made all the greater by the fact that they already existed even before the Argentine had made an appearance for Barça. Playing for the club deepened them. When Mascherano was asked the question, he had played just 56 minutes: the first half against Herculés and 11 minutes against Panathinaikos.
His debut was a 2-0 home defeat against a newly promoted team. That's big news in Barcelona: It had not lost at home in 16 months and hadn't been beaten by a newly promoted team at home in almost a decade. Since coach Pep Guardiola's arrival, it had never been beaten by two goals in the league. Against Panathinaikos, Barcelona won 5-1 and played brilliantly. But mostly it did so in Mascherano's absence.
Against Herculés, things didn't go Mascherano's way. Barcelona dominated possession, boasting almost 80 percent, but was unusually slow in its circulation of the ball. Some pointed to the absence of Xavi Hernández and Sergio Busquets, others to the presence of Mascherano. His passing was mostly accurate, and there was a lot of it, but it was also mostly delayed. A fraction behind time. There was little sign of the characteristic crispness of the Catalans.
Mascherano had also given away a couple of free kicks -- one of them led to Herculés' opening goal. And, in truth, he had been fortunate to stay on the pitch. Having collected one yellow, he might have got another when he bundled Royston Drenthe onto the ground. If anyone had any doubts, Guardiola blew them away by removing Mascherano at halftime. A giant, accusing finger pointed his way.
Some thought he should not have started at all; it was too soon. Guardiola had already said before the game that Mascherano would need time to settle into Barcelona's style. But here he was in the starting XI. Still, it was "only" Herculés. Others thought he should never have been bought in the first place.
On the face of it, they had a point. Barcelona sold Yaya Touré to Manchester City for $37 million and bought Mascherano from Liverpool for $32 million. Essentially, they had swapped Mascherano for Touré for $5 million. Had Barcelona got it wrong again? Was this another Samuel Eto'o-Zlatan Ibrahimovic-David Villa situation? Was it really worth it?
Many fans thought not. Touré is, they said, a better player. And $5 million is pretty much nothing. With the emergence of Sergio Busquets, Touré didn't play that often. Why would Mascherano be any different? Did they really need him? At least Touré was creative too; Mascherano isn't. Would Barcelona really play with two defensive midfielders? And if so, would Busquets or Mascherano really accept a substitute's role? What about the commitment to creative football?
But it is not that simple -- and it has much to do with timing. Timing and personalities. Timing and personalities and money. And fitness. About opportunity and missed opportunity. Selling Touré and buying Mascherano was not the original plan. Selling Touré was. Buying Cesc Fabregas was.
Barcelona had come to see Touré as a "diesel." He was fine when he got going, but it would take him four or five games to do so. Injuries knocked him off his form for longer than most players. When he returned from the African Cup of Nations, it was April before the coaching staff felt it was really seeing the best of him.
Meanwhile, the club had grown tired of his agent's very public demands for Touré to play more minutes and his open criticism of Busquets. A homegrown product whom Guardiola worked with for Barcelona B and brought into the first team, Busquets went from playing third-division football to winning the World Cup in two years, and he's the son of one of Guardiola's former teammates and friends, goalkeeper Carlos Busquets.
Contract negotiations were the backdrop to the remarks. Touré was demanding a salary that Barcelona decided it could not pay. He joined Manchester City for a reported $312,000 a week, more than that of any Barcelona player, Messi included. City's interest offered Barcelona an opportunity to save money on his salary and make money on his sale. Money that was supposed to help fund a move for Fabregas.
Only manager Arsene Wenger's determination to keep Fabregas saw Arsenal, later in the summer, give up on Cesc and turn its attention elsewhere. Only after losing Touré and not getting its first choice as a replacement did Barcelona look at its squad -- the shortest in the league -- and decide that it needed an extra player. The profit was a necessary bonus: Mascherano would not have come if his demands had been as high as Tourés'. Just as he would not have come if Fabregas had.
Fabregas would have had no such doubts surrounding him. He is Catalan, a lifelong Barcelona fan and a graduate of La Masía, the club's youth system. He has what is often called "Barça DNA." He plays with Iniesta, Xavi and Carles Puyol at the national-team level. His best friend is Gerard Piqué. He has known Messi since they were 13. And he speaks Catalan. But Barcelona could not get him.
Danny Blind said this week that fully embracing a style like Barcelona's takes years; it is an education. Blind is a former Ajax player who came through its famous academy -- the conscious model for Barcelona, the one that produced Barcelona's ideologue, Johan Cruyff.
Mascherano, Blind said, might struggle at Barcelona -- certainly to start with. Not because he is a bad player but because he could be the wrong kind of good player. Barça's footballing identity is so entrenched, so specific and so dogmatically followed that not just any player can fit in; you cannot expect to turn up and immediately suit the system perfectly. Mascherano will need patience while he adapts.
Learning a new language takes time. So does learning a new game.