Every once in a while, the footballing world witnesses something that leaves such a lasting impression that a term is named after the footballer himself.
In the 1974 World Cup, Johan Cryuff produced a remarkable feint and drop of the shoulder to dummy defender Jan Olsson and to leave the footballing world gasping. The “Cryuff turn” was the symbol of the Dutch team that made it to the final and its brand of Total Football.
Fast forward 30 years later, and English football faced a similar revolution.
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal smoked past all of their competitors with a squad that was brimming with world-class players, who worked collectively well together and produced some of the best attacking football to have been seen in a long time. They summed up the 2003-04 season with an unbeaten campaign, which led to them being called ‘The Invincibles’.
Jose Mourinho, fresh off winning a treble at Porto, joined Chelsea who finished a distant second to the Gunners. Yet, it was the latter that really changed the way English clubs operated.
The Portuguese manager immediately brought a tactical overhaul, a 4-3-3 that was barely heard of around the 4-4-2 focused English football. Instead of having two strikers, he opted to leave Didier Drogba alone up top.
This led to the introduction of a specialist third central midfielder into the team. This midfielder would be positioned deeper than the two central midfielders, adding an extra layer of protection in front of the defensive line.
Jose Mourinho opted for a new signing who had struggled to adapt in his first year at the club to occupy this role – Claude Makelele.
Makelele was not a physical powerhouse. He didn’t have great technical ability nor a brilliant passing range and he rarely scored.
The 4-4-2 was not designed for players like him. Instead, it required multi-faceted players who could both attack and defend with aplomb.
What he did have was immense intelligence, seeing attacks before they happened and sniffing them out in the most efficient manner possible. His tackling and positional sense were a joy to behold as he routinely stopped players who were stronger, quicker and/or flashier than him.
Before joining Chelsea, Makelele was already well-known in the footballing world. After having successful stints at Nantes, Marseille and Celta Vigo, Makelele earned a move to Real Madrid.
In a star-studded Galactico attacking lineup, Claude Makelele was arguably the glue that held it all, routinely praised by team-mates such as Zinedine Zidane and Raul as the most important player in the team. While the Madrid attackers buzzed around the box, Makelele was the one who was there to break up attacks whenever the team lost the ball, cover for the fullbacks whenever they bombed forward and ensure that the team doesn’t get overrun in midfield.
It was here where Makelele claims he really learnt the defensive role.
“If we were losing 1-0, we would say ‘Right, lock up shop’. The four at the back and the one in front of them - me - would concentrate only on defence and let the others go and do what they had to up front. They would take the risks, I would take care of the opposition's attacks.”
And he really did.
Makelele, urged by teammates, requested a new contract from Florentino Perez, the owner, as a show of faith and also as a reward for his performance. Florentino, however, did not see Makelele in the same light. Tensions grew and they ultimately culminated with the sale of the French international to English club, Chelsea.
Makelele’s sale had left the footballing world with two quotes that have been circulated since. Here is one from Florentino Perez after the sale of the Frenchman.
“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.”
The next quote is Zinedine Zidane’s disagreement with the transfer. The playmaker referred to the signing of David Beckham whilst responding with a creative comment.
“Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”
It was no surprise that the sale of Claude Makelele began the downfall of Real Madrid which led to a consecutive run of six years where the team failed to make it beyond the last 16 of the Champions League.
It also began the rise of Chelsea Football Club as a title contender, en route to winning their first domestic league title for 50 years.
Impact on Chelsea
Operating a 4-3-3, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea took the England by storm. The West London club finished the season with a record 95 points, which was 12 points ahead of last year’s winners Arsenal while conceding an amazingly low 15 goals in 38 games.
The traditional English 4-4-2 had absolutely no answer to this formation, as the extra man in midfield allowed Chelsea to dominate games. Whenever Chelsea took the lead, there was a sense of inevitability that they will win due to their sturdy defence. They lost only one game in the entire league season, a 1-0 defeat away to Manchester City.
In the base of that 4-3-3 was Claude Makelele. Makelele’s role at Chelsea didn’t deviate a lot of his “shut up shop” role at Real Madrid. He was there to cover for his teammates whenever they went forward, he was there to break up any attack that threatened to develop.
His deeper role had attacking benefits as well. Since there wasn’t someone who could mark him, Makelele had a lot of time with the ball and could dictate the game. Teams had no idea about who should pick him up.
He epitomized Jose Mourinho’s new approach and was what some people called an “anti-footballer”, someone whosech primary instinct is to destroy attacks rather than create them. However, such was the excellence in which Makelele performed his role, almost every Premiership team started to abandon the traditional 4-4-2 and adapt.
Redefining English football, Claude Makelele’s position was called ‘The Makelele Role’.
Makelele played a huge role in taking Chelsea to back-to-back titles, three domestic cups and the club’s first ever Champions League final. He also starred for France in the same role at the 2006 World Cup, reaching the final with a midfield that comprised of himself, Patrick Vieira and former team-mate Zinedine Zidane.
Makelele ended his career in his home country, spending two years at Paris Saint-Germain before hanging up his boots.
Makelele is one of the few shining examples of when a defensive midfielder, the “water-carrier” of the team, has been really appreciated. The fact that he barely committed to the flashy side of defence, the last ditch tackles for example, was simply because he did not need to.
A lot of players have given the game a new element, but no one till now can lay claim to having a position named after them. That, in itself, sums up Makelele.