Argentina made it through to the 2014 World Cup final having defeated Holland in a penalty shootout. Lionel Messi, the star of the show, wearing the nation’s iconic number 10, didn’t have a single touch in the Dutch penalty area throughout the 120 minutes of play. He, rightly or wrongly, won the player of the tournament award, but where would he have been without Javier Mascherano?
His Barcelona colleague is by all account Argentina’s captain without the armband. The former Liverpool midfielder’s importance to the cause was best demonstrated in last minute of normal time with Arjen Robben in through on goal. Ready to erase the demons of 2010 when he missed a one on one against Iker Casillas in the World Cup final, Robben, on his prolific left foot and in the form of his life, gets a shot away only for Mascherano to literally injure himself lunging to block the shot and keep the game at 0-0.
That moment right there is why Argentina fans are forever entangled in a love triangle. For every mercurial talent they produce – the magic of Messi, the madness of Maradona, and the irrepressible Juan Román Riquelme – they produce a Javier Mascherano, Diego Simeone and Sergio Batista. Criminally underrated and undervalued by many, the latter three players are fundamental to the former three excelling the way they did and bringing success to the South American nation. It’s why it’s difficult for the fans, and even the players themselves, to grow up idolising just the one player.
You have to ask: would Argentina have made it to the 2014 final without Mascherano? Would they have lifted the trophy in 1986 had it not been for the brilliance of the young Batista at the time?
The players may not always wear the number 5 shirt but they take up the position historically filled by the player wearing that number. It is said that the rivalry between Boca Juniors and River Plate was sparked when a defensive midfielder from River Plate wouldn’t wear the number 5 as he believed it to be symbolic of their crosstown enemies.
The traditional Argentine tactic was to have two defensive-minded midfielders as part of a three-man midfield. The number 5 would be the central one of the three and would primarily sit with the ability to dictate play. He would be the one to set the tempo, recycle possession, take the ball off the back line to start the attacks, and be the one that the defence use to set their starting position from.
The role is an integral part of the Argentina system. Beside him you would have the roaming destroyer, capable of going box-to-box trying to win back possession. In England, you could compare this role to the former Tottenham duo of Victor Wanyama and Moussa Dembélé. The third man in this midfield trio would’ve been the one tasked with linking defence and attack.
The shape for this system was a diamond, but not as symmetrical as the diamond we see in today’s game. In previous eras, the number 5 would be the ‘1’ in a 3-1-4-2 formation, other times he’d be part of a 4-4-2. Regardless of the formation he was deployed in, the fundamentals of the role were the same: sit and dictate with the ball and shield the back line when the opposition are on the hunt.
Argentina have boasted an abundance of these types of players; all put there to make the job of the attackers easier, ensuring their emphasis is focused on the final third. The three mentioned above alone are impressive, but before and after them, the likes of Eliseo Mouriño, Antonio Rattín, Américo Gallego, Fernando Redondo, Fernando Gago, Lucas Biglia and to some extent Matías Almeyda all filled that role for the national team. It’s quite the repertoire of holding midfielders.
The quality at their disposal is highlighted when you look at who these players ply their club trade for. Both Fernandos, Redondo and Gago, turned out for Real Madrid. Diego Simeone played for Atlético Madrid and Inter Milan amongst many other teams. Mascherano, Biglia and Almeyda have all played at the highest European level.
The importance of Redondo to Real Madrid meant when he left in 2000 they spent close to €50 million on Claude Makélélé and Flávio Conceição to compensate for the loss of the Argentine. What later become known as the ‘Makélélé Role’ was originally the ‘Redondo Role’.
Being South American, though, with all their technical training and creative thinking, meant these defensively minded players had flair. They differed to the more conventional European defensive midfielders with limited football ability. In Europe you regularly hear pundits remonstrate that a certain defensive midfielder has done too much on the ball, or how a basic pass is lauded as if it’s a moon landing due to the fact the player making the pass is a DM so supposedly has limited abilities. In Argentina, these players have always been expected to be as proficient in possession as they are out of it.
Javier Mascherano, renowned for his tenacity and tackling, rarely shows what he has to offer in the final third butm during his Liverpool days, he gave the world a glimpse of this in a game against Manchester United as his drive with the ball and subsequent work rate to win back possession after he lost it helped set up Ryan Babel for Liverpool to record a famous 2-1 victory at Old Trafford. It summed up how Argentines play that role; drive, determination, passion and quality.
Fernando Redondo was perhaps the most naturally gifted of all the typical number 5s. Indeed, who can forget his moment of brilliance for Real Madrid – also against Manchester United – when he backheeled the ball past Henning Berg to set up Raúl for a decisive win in the Champions League.
There are countless examples of the Argentina defensive midfielder demonstrating his class in attack but for me, one of the greatest examples is of Esteban Cambiasso during the 2006 World Cup. After putting together a move of over 25 passes, it was the former Internazionale and Leicester City man who lashed home the winner after breaking from deep. The deftness of his touch to Javier Saviola before having the ball returned to him was one you’d expect from Lionel Messi.
These examples are why, in Argentina anyway, the holding midfielder is often as revered as the magical fantasista.
The history of the game dictates that more youngsters want to be attacking players, however in Argentina, they still have an abundance of talented number 5s just waiting to burst onto the worldwide scene. The position for the national team, at least for the next decade looks to be in safe hands with the likes of Lucas Romero, Matías Kranevitter, Adrián Cubas and Gastón Gil Romero expected to make an impact in the national team over the upcoming years.
Lucas Romero has been likened to a more defensive version of a young Diego Simeone. The player himself has mentioned the fact his idol is none other than Javier Mascherano. Matías Kranevitter is a player that is even more comfortable on the ball than Mascherano. He is widely considered to be the heir to Mascherano for La Albiceleste.
With such a talented pool, it wouldn’t be out of the question for the national team to deploy two of the names mentioned, much like they did in 2006 when both Mascherano and Cambiasso took to the field. Only time will tell if any of the aforementioned youngsters can emulate the success of their predecessors, but the famous Argentine number 5 position looks secure for another generation at least. It’s incentive enough for these youngsters to ensure the legacy lives on and that future midfielders are one day compared to them as they are compared to past stars.
Happily, the Argentine triangle of supporter, number 10 and number 5 looks like a relationship with no ending in sight. Sooner or later, it will also yield a World Cup win for the South American giants.
By Sam McGuire. Follow @SamMcGuire90