“We will not miss Makelele… Younger players will arrive who will cause Makelele to be forgotten.”
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez’s thoughts on Claude Makelele’s departure from the club in 2003 did not age well. Although often the forgotten man, Makelele’s legacy is unforgettable; religiously referenced on tactical whiteboards across many of Europe’s dressing rooms.
At the turn of the century, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal offered the most contrasting style of football available in the Premier League. Football in England was only just entering a period of transformation. The 4-4-2 remained stubbornly influential. Speedy wingers, physical centre-forwards and a gritty midfield still dominated.
However, at the same time in Spain, a young Claude Makelele was beginning to make a name for himself as a new brand of midfielder.
Despite having early success with Nantes in France during a five-year spell that included winning the Ligue 1 title in 1995 and reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League the following season, Makelele would spend a season at Marseille before heading south of the border to Vigo where he would hone his anchor man capabilities.
Although a fresh face on the list of Europe’s elite talent pool, Makelele was an experienced player when he arrived in Spain, and at the age of 25, looked close to hitting his ceiling of growth. However, this could not be further from the truth.
With Makelele in midfield, Celta would record landmark victories, most notably in the UEFA Cup where they defeated Italian giants Juventus 4-0. He would depart the Galician club after just two seasons following a toxic transfer saga that saw him refuse to play in order to force through his move to Real Madrid. Celta Vigo were handed just over £12 million in way of compensation, a fee worth pennies in the grand landscape of Makelele’s career.
In Madrid, Makelele would forge his name on the international stage, quickly entering the top class of Europe’s midfielders. Under the tutelage of Vicente Del Bosque, Makelele would acquire two La Liga titles and a Champions League winners medal amongst other accolades.
However, the shock departure of Del Bosque in 2003, coupled with Florentino Perez’s refusal to offer Makelele better terms, ones that he and his teammates felt he was deserved of, marked the beginning of the end to Makelele’s time in Spain. Despite Florentino Perez’s scathing verbal attack, Zinedine Zidane and much of Real Madrid’s star-studded squad thought otherwise about Makelele’s exit.
Following the replacement of Makelele with David Beckham, Zidane was quoted as saying:
“Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”
Zidane was right. The Galacticos would go three seasons without a trophy post-Makelele. Meanwhile, Chelsea’s ascent to the top only hurried after signing Makelele for just £16.8 million.
Makelele’s introduction to the Premier League was seismic. Chelsea were runners-up in his first season (2003/04) but, with the arrival of Jose Mourinho, they were a step ahead of the competition as they cantered their way to the 2004/05 Premier League title with a 95-point haul attached. At the centre was Makelele, with his influence in midfield appearing to know no end. For Mourinho, the midfielder was the perfect fixture in his new-look Chelsea mould. In his early years at Chelsea, opposing teams failed to muster any substantial resistance in a bid to sidestep Makelele’s in-game influence.
Chris Coleman’s Fulham was one of few teams able to isolate and stifle Makelele’s ability. After defeating Chelsea 1-0 at Craven Cottage in March 2006, Coleman referred to Makelele as the focal point of Chelsea’s attacking setup. Fulham focused their attacks out wide, man-marked Makelele and interrupted the passing channels that the Frenchman thrived on.
Exposed, Mourinho was forced to pull Mikel Essien further back to assist Makelele for a string of games, weakening their attacking fluidity. Chelsea still ran away with the title but it confirmed that their midfielder stalwart was only human after all.
Amongst the hustle and bustle of playing in a Premier League midfield, Makelele made the fundamentals of defence and attack look so simple. He knew when to sit deep, when to hold onto the ball, when to play the ball forward, how to dictate the flow of the game and arguably his most important trait, how to frustrate the opposition.
Although humble in stature, Makelele’s low centre of gravity allowed him to shrug bigger opponents off the ball and make it almost impossible to dispossess him. He was the springboard for attacking plays whilst simultaneously the first, and often only needed, line of defence.
His positioning placed him at the footballing epicentre; directly in front of his two central defenders and directly behind his two central midfielders; the tip of a defensive triangle and the base of a midfield three. Multi-functional and pragmatic.
Frank Lampard was one beneficiary, able to make late runs into the box at will and offer more in the attacking third whilst Makelele kept everything neat and tidy in the foreground.
Football shifts in tactical approach as time passes. Counter-attacking, long-ball and possession styles continuously flirt with one another for popularity. The shift is usually initiated by a collective trigger point, a winning methodology or the degree of a squad’s physical or technical prowess. However, in the case of Makelele, particularly in England, he warrants significant credit in forcing a rethink of how teams line up. He appeared fluent in a footballing language only he understood.
Variations exist. Just as Makelele was calling time in England in 2008, Spain and Barcelona, anchored by a young B-team graduate by the name of Sergio Busquets, began on a warpath to European domination under Pep Guardiola. Busquets’ fundamentals drew many parallels with Makelele despite the Spaniard being much more advanced when in possession of the ball. Busquets’ fame stems from his ability to control a game through short, concise passes that stretch the opposition and make it difficult for his team to lose control of a game. Like Makelele, he had the valuable skill of always being an option for his team’s defence and attack, acting as a go-between filter.
Pep Guardiola is an advocate of his side’s being able to adapt quickly from an attacking phase to a defensive one, and vice versa. It is one of the keys to his tactical philosophy, allowing for compact defending when out of possession as well as control of the game when attacking as the centre of the pitch is stacked with players. Similarities appear between Mourinho’s Chelsea mavericks of the noughties and Guardiola’s progressive Manchester City side of today, with both sides being the two most influential sides of the modern era to dominate using a 4-3-3 system. Just as Makelele was Mourinho’s most important cog, Fernandinho is Guardiola’s anchor man, with both offering a level head and a sense of security in two free-flowing teams.
A decade on since Makelele swapped Stamford Bridge for a return to his native Paris, Chelsea have a new midfield anchor by the name of N’Golo Kante who mirrors the traits Makelele was once so precious for. He exemplifies a modern version of Makelele, just as vital today as Makelele was to Chelsea over a decade ago.
Makelele would play for Paris Saint Germain for three seasons after leaving Chelsea, too influential a player to justify retirement. He played 30-plus game seasons up until the age of 38, relying on a level of consistency and dedication to his role like no other. Although he never received the plaudits he deserved during his formative years, his stock has soared since retirement and his footprint left on how football is played has become eternal, etching his name on a position forever.