Claude Makelele – The Position, The Player And The Man

Claude Makelele, according to many, has breathed life into the role of a defensive midfielder. His arrival in the world of club football has been hailed and regarded by many as one of the most influential roles to have been incumbent of the position.

The defensive midfield job is perhaps one of the most thankless jobs in football. In a fast evolving modern game, even the full backs have a crucial overlapping role in attack that enables them to catch the public eye. The centre backs have also garnered much deserved attention over the years, thanks to their position being the final barrier of a defensive wall; which leads to many a spectacular last ditch clearance or a tackle. It is fairly needless to mention the midfielders and attacking players, who often have to be extraordinary in order to be effective and therefore grab a lot of eyeballs.

Defensive midfielders of the modern day game have different characteristics. While each player is indeed unique, the players can broadly be categorized into three types. The most recognized of them all are players who are known as the Terriers in midfield, these players can chase their opponents all day long, but are perhaps limited by their modest technical abilities – the Gattuso’s, Mascheranho’s, Nigel De Jong’s and the Scott Parker’s of football.

And then there are those from the 4-4-2 era, the fiercely combative breed who were as adept on the ball as they were without it, and they had the stamina to boot. Best examples of this category would undoubtedly be players like Fernando Redondo, Edgar Davids, Roy Keane or Patrick Vieira.

As the years have rolled by, the predominant 4-3-3 formation has enabled the defensive midfield role to flourish. However, the position itself has come to be occupied by a breed that operates more in ‘silence’, so to speak. A defensive midfielder playing in a 4 – 3 – 3 formation has more of a ‘specialist’ role now.

It is fitting then that one of the earliest and most successful exponents of this role went on to have the position named after him. We speak of course of Claude Makelele – A midfielder who played the role of the soundman at whichever gig his team performed at, ensured that the levels were balanced, the mix perfect and was largely recognized only when he was absent.

‘’We will not miss Makélelé. His technique is average; he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélelé to be forgotten’’ – Read Madrid president Florentino Perez commented about Claude Makelele after his departure from Bernabeu to Chelsea FC in the summer of 2003.

Perez wasn’t wrong in his reading of Makelele back then. His greatest error was that he misread the game itself. Claude Makelele’s arrival at Chelsea heralded the birth of a new successful era for the South London club. In sheer contrast, Real Madrid struggled to find a replacement for the Frenchman (unless one wants to count Thomas Gravesen) and endured three subsequent trophy-less years.

Claude Makelele Claude Makelele Claude Makelele

Claude Makelele

You shall not pass - Claude Makelele

Claude Makelele Claude Makelele Claude Makelele

Players like Claude Makelele and Arsenal’s Gilberto Silva (who was aptly nicknamed the ‘invisible wall’), epitomized the characteristics of this new breed of the defensive midfielder. Claude Makelele’s game was heavily reliant on his excellent positional sense, anticipation and clean tackling. He wasn’t one to chase and harry his opponent into submission, but would instead patiently wait to make an interception or a tackle.

He scored 18 goals in all, 9 of them coming when he played the role of a box to box midfielder with Nantes early in his career. In an attacking sense, Makelele hardly made the final, telling pass. However, there would rarely be an attack without him having initiated it.

Claude Makelele diligently won the ball back in midfield and usually released it to a player best positioned to hurt the opposition. If such an option weren’t available, he’d pass it to the player closest to him and move into a better position which offered better passing opportunities. He scored just two goals for Chelsea and one of them was particularly memorable as it was a spectacular strike from outside the box, against arch rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

After Fulham beat Chelsea in March 2006, manager Chris Coleman explained that he had designed his side’s tactics to bypass Makélélé through the wings in attack and pressurize him when Chelsea had the ball.

He explained that, ‘Makélelé is more than a mere defensive midfielder, but is actually Chelsea’s deep-lying playmaker, and Chelsea’s attacks are all channelled through him. Thus, denying him possession was instrumental in unravelling Chelsea today.’

Claude Makelele – Birth and Early Years

Claude Makelele was born in Kinhasa, Zaire (now the democratic republic of Congo). Aged just 15, Makelele would go on to play for U.S.Melun in the city of Melun, near Savigny-Le-Temple. He played with fellow French great Lilian Thuram at the club. When he joined F.C.Nantes aged 18, the then sporting director Robert Budzinski, in a moment of clairvoyance, (and sufficient footballing expertise one would presume) predicted that Claude Makelele would go on to become the new Emanuele Petit. He was proven right.

After five successful seasons with Nantes where he won the 1994-95 Ligue 1 title and made the semi – finals of the Champions League in 1996, Makelele was transferred to Marseille. He would spend just one season at the port city located on the south-eastern coast of France before finding himself playing alongside Aleksandr Mostovoi, Valery Karpin and Haim Revivo at Celta Vigo.

Rise and Rise

Claude Makelele’s rise to prominence on the world stage happened only when he joined Real Madrid and Makelele was already 27 then. The two seasons at Celta Vigo were spent on moulding himself into a thoroughbred defensive midfielder/anchor man. He revelled in this role and found that its highly specialized, yet somewhat limited responsibilities suited him perfectly.

Post his departure from Real Madrid to Chelsea, there was much talk about club president Florentino Perez’ quotes on the player and his decision to not renew his contract was widely criticized. The general low opinion of the decision was compounded by the fact that it pushed Zinedine Zidane into saying, what was undoubtedly one of his most memorable quotes ever.

After Makelele’s sale and Madrid’s purchase of David Beckham, the then world’s best player went on to say – ‘’Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?’’

Over the years, there has been many a debate about Claude Makelele and his abilities. There are many who say that he was underrated vastly once upon a time, however has come to be overrated now. ‘The Makelele Position’ was a term coined by English pundits who were used to seeing teams deploy a 2 man central midfield. His arrival changed it all.

Chelsea dominated English football by largely using a three man midfield as was preferred by Jose Mourinho. And despite being in his early 30’s, Makelele’s stock only steadily continued to rise. He unfortunately wasn’t part of the French squads which won the World Cup and The Euros in 1998 and 2000 respectively. His path to the first team was blocked by the excellent Didier Deschamps.

However, the midfield combination of Claude Makelele, Patrick Vieira and Zinedine Zidane did ensure that France reached the finals of the 2006 World Cup, only to lose to Italy in an agonizing manner. He amassed 72 caps for France in all. Throughout his career Claude Makelele won the Ligue 1, two La Liga titles, two Premier League titles, a Champions League winner’s medal and an array of cups.

Overrated or underrated is purely a matter of individual opinion. However, it cannot be argued upon that Claude Makelele wasn’t just a Chelsea or a French Legend, his contribution to football on the whole was immense. His style of play brought about a tactical revision and his legacy has been continued by unfashionable but extremely effective midfielders like John Obi Mikel and Sergio Busquets among a few others.

Also, while the philosophy has always existed as part of the highly technical Spanish footballing philosophies, thanks also to players like Claude Makelele, interceptions and positional awareness are a lot more valued in football now.

It is difficult to be emotional about Claude Makelele. His nature of work can be gauged by the countless articles that have been written about him and they all speak only of his devotion to his role. Claude Makelele wasn’t a player who provided tear jerking memories for the romantics. He neither was a particularly good looking chap nor his off field behaviour has been praiseworthy all the time; but nothing of it is too memorable. However, every time one looks back upon football’s history books, his name will inevitably crop up.

The diminutive midfield anchor man has silently ensured that much.

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