A look at how the defensive midfield role has evolved from Makélélé’s Legacy. A look at Sergio Busquets and Lucas Leiva amongst others.

The rise to prominence of the holding midfielder has been fairly well publicised over recent years, yet they still seem to be overlooked in terms of ability. In reality, they are now one of the most important members of a team; covering large expanses of the pitch, breaking down the oppositions attacks and distributing the ball accordingly. Pundits have often coined the phrase, 'The Makélélé Role’ when discussing this position.

Claude Makélélé was, for me, the modern day pioneer for the defensive midfield role. He may not be the fore-father, but he is certainly the favoured son. He combined heart, intelligence and simplicity in order to get the best out of his position. He joined the Galactico’s of Real Madrid in 2000 from Celta Vigo, and quickly found himself in a midfield of Zidane, Figo and Guti. This team, with such an array of attacking talent, needed balance. Makélélé was the answer. He would sit just infront of the two centre halves, protecting them from any danger, whilst starting forward moves of his own. The problem Makélélé had with his role at the club was not that he was unsung, or not noticed. It was his wages. He was grossly underpaid compared to his team mates, Zidane and Co. yet he was recognized to be the player who was most important to success of the team. With his help, they had won two La Liga titles, a Champions League and a European Super Cup in three years. Not one fan could complain. Makélélé heavily influenced the team’s style, allowing more gifted attacking players to exploit offensive opportunities, whilst keeping a bowed head. 

He asked for an improved contract in the summer of 2003, as he saw his place in the starting eleven come under threat from the new arrival, David Beckham. Guti was also a new problem for Makélélé to deal with, as he had moved into a more defensive role due to his age. Claude’s contract plea fell on deaf ears. The club president, Florentino Perez strictly declined Makélélé’s advance, stamping his authority throughout the club. The Real Madrid man didn’t take to this kindly, and began to see how he was valued at the club. He requested a transfer.

Perez said of Makélélé’s transfer to Chelsea in 2003: “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.”

This was gravely misjudged. Zidane was outspoken in his response to his employer, “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” – explaining that Makélélé was the centre of the team, and drove them forward. He recognized he wasn’t the spark of the team, he didn’t need to be. He was respected for what he did. He played an unconventional role, one that didn’t get the glory, but is respected by people with knowledge of the game.

Eventhough Makélélé had been brought to Chelsea by Claudio Ranieri, who labelled him as ‘the battery’, Jose Mourinho was the manager to really push Makélélé to the forefront of the game. A year after arriving from Real Madrid for £16.8m, he helped Chelsea to their first Premier League title in 2004, demonstrating the effectiveness of a holding midfielder to the English league as a whole. To reward his efforts that season, he was selected as a member of the World XI, voted by all FIFA registered players. The flower that was the defensive midfielder was starting to open up and show its blossom. After Fulham beat Chelsea in March 2006, Chris Coleman explained that he had designed his sides tactics to bypass the use of Makélélé. 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 channeled through him. Thus, denying him possession was instrumental in unravelling Chelsea today.’ Makélélé went on to be instrumental in Chelsea’s run to the 2008 Champions League Final, allowing players such as Lampard and Essien to flourish in their natural roles.

Many were to follow in Claude Makélélé’s footsteps. And many teams would go on to change their playing style as to counter attacking movement by the opposing team. The traditional 4-4-2 became more of a 4-1-2-1-2, or more recently a complex 4-3-3. 

“I always said Claude Makelele was our most important player. There is no way myself, Figo or Raul would have been able to do what we did without Claude”                      - Zidane

Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri, or Dunga as you may know him, is an earlier example of a decorated holding midfielder. A World Cup winner in 1994 with Brazil, Dunga was a tough tackling, general of the game. If you asked Brazilian fan’s of that era, I’m sure they would talk about how he symbolized the less than thrilling, slow, and defensive style of  a team that was so exciting to watch, and looked unbeatable for a period. This was largely down to their talismanic captain, who fabricated chances for other, rather than himself.

Players traditionally retired into the midfield ‘anchor role’ once they had lost their pace, but still had the tactical nous to read the game and influence it from a deeper role. Portugal’s Rui Costa is a great example of this. He made his name as an attacking playmaker in his national team’s ‘Golden Generation’, contributing 26 goals in 94 appearances. He was known for his long distance shooting alongside his ability to split open a defence with a decisive pass, a la Pirlo or Xavi. However towards the end of his career, Costa moved deeper into a role that suited his key skills. He still had the vision and the where-with-all to create chances, but he had lost the phyical side of his game, which was vitally important in the final third. Taking you back to Euro 2004, where England played Portugal in a thrilling Quarter-Final affair, which ofcourse ended in the inevitable, I highlight Costa’s influence. He controlled the game, even though he was in his last year of international football and had retired into a less prominent role, yet he was still the player who had the most impact on the game. He would collect the ball, play it to a team mate, then cover them. It seems basic, but its what stopped England penetrating the Portuguese defence effectively. Costa also proved in that match that he still had his shooting ability, thundering in a drive passed David James from 25yards. He showed the world how to efficiently run a midfield, and carry a team into a Semi-Final of a major tournament. It was a masterclass, and many went on to learn from it.

Since Makélélé, there has been a increase in necessity for holding midfielders due to the strain on the modern game. Games become stretched very easily, and with a traditional flat four in midfield, a team can get caught out with a quick counter attack. Within the Spanish game, especially, there have been major developments in this area of the pitch. They hold three of the best ‘Anchor Men’ in the world, in La Liga (Busquets, Mascherano and Alonso), and two of the best in their national team. They are all very accomplished on the ball, due to their teams style of play, however they are vital in dispossessing the opposition when they break towards goal.

‘I think Claude has this kind of gift – he’s been the best player in the team for years but people just don’t notice him, don’t notice what he does.’                                              - Steve McManaman, 2006

Barcelona and Spain’s dominance on current world football is largely down to the style of football that they employ. A figure head in this style is Sergio Busquets. Often criticised as being the boring player in a talented team, Busquets certainly plays his part. Still at the tender age of 23, he has made 116 competitive appearances for the proclaimed ‘best team ever.’ Some feat. Also to distinguish the doubters, in his four year career he has won:

3 La Liga’s

5 Domestic Cups

2 Champions Leagues

2 European Super Cups

2 FIFA Club World Cups

and ofcourse a World Cup and European Championship with Spain. Quite unbelievable for someone who started their professional career in 2008.

This role normally see’s an experienced player bossing a game, using his football knowledge to control the flow of the play. At 21, Busquets was being preferred in the Barcelona set up over more experienced players, so much so that Yaya Toure was forced to move away just to get first team action. Busquets though shows unbelievable composure on the ball, and extreme discipline when his team mates attack. Imagine how hard it must be not to try and break into the penalty area when players like Xavi and Iniesta are threading passes through. Busquets’ shows great character for such a young man, yet his inexperience still shows in his extraordinary ability to act.

Barcelona’s concept of the ‘five second press’, employed by Swansea under Brendan Rodgers, allows Busquets and his team mates to win the ball back quickly, and recycle possession. Simply put, the ‘five second press’ is a tactic used when your team loses possession of the ball. The idea is that all players press the ball for five seconds to try and win it back quickly, and if unsuccessful, then drop back deeper to support the defensive line. Busquets is also aided in this role due to his physical stature. It allows him to be a presence in the air, whilst also being strong on the ball, making him hard to dispossess. He almost acts as third centre back for Barcelona, as Dani Alves roams up the right hand side all to often. Puyol/Mascherano move across to cover Alves and Busquets is seen to pair up with Pique in the middle.

“Precision is the most important thing for the position I play in, you have to be physical, quick and have good technique. If you lose the ball, it can have irreversible consequences. You have to be very precise in your positioning. There are no more number 10s – the defensive midfielder has to know how to do everything.”                            -  Makélélé

Another player to have developed as a young defensive midfielder is Liverpool’s Lucas Leiva. Once the laughing stock of Merseyside, Lucas has proved his critics wrong by becoming a key member of the team. Brought in by Rafael Benitez as an attacking Brazilian prospect, Lucas showed nothing of the talent that any Anfield regular wanted so see. He lacked touch, awareness and the distinct ability to attack, a substantial flaw of an attacking midfielder. Benitez knew of his potential, and said in a press conference, ‘You will see, one day Lucas will be great’. Since then, Lucas has been sculpted into the ‘Makélélé Role’ and some would argue, become one of the best at it. He is the master of simplicity. He understands that nothing needs to be rushed, as it is better to be simple and accurate, than brash and misguided. With this philosophy he has established himself in the Liverpool first team, with only injury keeping him out of last years campaign. However, in the 12 games that Lucas did play last season, he made more tackles (68) than Vincent Kompany did all season (65), and if he had continued to tackle at this rate, he would have recorded the highest tackle statistics in Premier League history. He is certainly one of the least unsung of the unsung hero’s in this position, due to his growth from nothing to something in such a short space of time.

Taking everything into account, we can quite clearly see that the game has moved on tactically since the incision of the defensively midfielder. Long gone is the 4-4-2, now laughed at, and in come the unconventional number combinations that represent formations. As players and technology has developed, so has the game, recognizing that defence is as important as attack. Clocking that you can’t lose if you don’t concede. It is not often understood the stamina that is necessary to work in that role, but the players that do it, are at the peak of physical fitness. Makélélé will always be the best to play this position, for me, but recent variations are becoming along so often, it is only a matter of time before someone comes in to squash that opinion. The rise to prominence of this position is ofcourse not just down to Makélélé himself, but he has been a buccaneering figure in making it so widely accepted to have a midfielder that sits back and covers advancing players. Makélélé has left a legacy, one that will last until football moves on again. But in this paradime, a defensive model is believed to be the answer. It has worked for the victors of recent years, and it will continue to work in giving stability and balance to teams who need it. The Makélélé Role will forever live on in my eyes, in a positive way. Long may Makélélé’s Legacy live on.