The water carrier

While encomiums are showered on Paul Scholes on his retirement from football, it is worth mentioning another player who also retired this week, a player who defined his position. Claude Makelele’s job on the field was far from glamorous, but he provided the platform for success in every team he played in. When he was signed up at 18 by then French first division side Nantes, its sporting director called him the next Emmanuel Petit.

It was high praise, but it proved prophetic. Makelele’s 5 years at Nantes climaxed with a league title in 1995 and a Champions’ League semi in 1996, when they were knocked out by eventual winners Juventus. That Nantes side had players like Japhet N’doram and Patrice Loko (remember them?)

The team was broken up, and Makelele spent a season at Marseille before moving to Celta Vigo to become part of a wonderful midfield including Haim Revivo, Alexander Mostovoi and Valeri Karpin. Celta reached back-to-back UEFA Cup quarter finals, achieving notable results on the way, like a 4-1 aggregate victory over Liverpool in 1998 and a 4-1 over Juventus in 1999.

Real Madrid soon came calling, and although Celta refused to sell because their valuation of the Frenchman wasn’t met, Makelele went on strike to force the move. At Real, he provided the platform for the likes of Figo, Zidane, Raul and Roberto Carlos to shine. His composure, reading of the game, positioning, tenacity and sacrificial nature was instrumental to the team’s shape when out of possession, helping Real to 2 La Liga and one Champions’ League title.

His more illustrious team mates recognised his vital contribution, but Florentino Perez clearly didn’t rate him. When Makelele asked for an improved contract, he was turned down and he handed in a transfer request to join Chelsea. Thought Perez didn’t know it, that summer of 2003 marked the beginning of the end of his galactico project. Vicente Del Bosque also departed that summer, and it was four years before Real would win anything again. In his 2006 autobiography, Steve McManaman put it best:

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. But you ask anyone at Real Madrid during the years we were talking about and they will tell you he was the best player at Real. We all knew he was the most important. The loss of Makelele was the beginning of the end for Los Galacticos… You can see that it was also the beginning of a new dawn for Chelsea. He was the base, the key and I think he is the same to Chelsea now.

Real’s loss was Chelsea’s gain. In his first season, they came second in the Premiership and reached the semi final of the Champions’ League, but under Mourinho he truly came into his own, becoming the cornerstone of a fantastic winning side that won 2 Premiership titles and 3 domestic cups. The Special One sums up his importance in one of his interviews:

Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makelele behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things.  

The French national team were also to benefit from Makelele’s form. With Le Bleus in trouble in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, Zidane and himself were called out of retirement. They qualified, and despite a slow start in the group stages, came alive in the knockout stages to get to the final, losing to Italy on penalties.

Claude Makelele’s use at Chelsea was to spark a revolution in the Premier League, with 4-3-3/4-5-1 becoming very common. When it was copied at Arsenal and Manchester United, the requirements for that position evolved. A player in that position needed to have the ability to play the ball, not just to win it. In ‘Inverting the Pyramid’, Jonathan Wilson writes:

Even Makelele, whose uncomplicated discipline at the back of midfield was so key to Chelsea’s success under Mourinho, and the loss of whom did so much to undermine Real Madrid, has seen himself usurped at Chelsea by Mikel Jon Obi, a far more complete midfielder.

This is not to subtract from his legacy though. He is a pioneer in his position. A prototype. The forerunner of players like Carrick, Busquets, Mikel, Song and Khedira. In a modern game that continues to celebrate the individual over the collective, Makelele’s career remind us that the most important players are not always the eye-catching ones.

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