BY JAKE SWINBURN
In recent times, the players who have changed the game in this country have been well known, high profile players. Match winners. Players who, at the peak of their powers could do the sublime, the ridiculous and the unthinkable.
So when it is mentioned, that a French player has had such an impact on the game in this country, everybody could be forgiven for immediately thinking of the enigmatic and amazing Thierry Henry.
Or perhaps, to the power, drive and leadership of the iconic Patrick Vieira. Even Laurent Blanc showed English fans a way of defending that they had not seen much of, albeit not always successfully, and David Ginola mesmerised the whole country as part of Newcastle’s famous ‘Entertainers’.
It would be hard to deny the influence that the French have had on our Premier League in recent years, but there is one who seemed to be a total game changer, while going completely under the radar.
Born in DR Congo, honed in Madrid and perfected on the King’s Road, south-west London, Claude Makelele was a tough tackling midfielder, who had good ball control, good short passing, was happy to receive the ball in almost any area and had a brilliant and astute football brain.
Makelele’s knowledge of the game was so great that not long after retiring, he made his first steps into management. However, it was not through his management that Makelele revolutionised the English game, but with his knowledge of the game on the pitch.
He did not score goals, he assisted very few and was never solely responsible for victories in tight games. That role went to his partner, Frank Lampard. While everyone knows and talks about Lampard’s qualities, of which there were many, Makelele seems to go almost unnoticed for his part in one of the greatest teams the Premier League has ever seen. Or at least, he did.
There were not many criticisms levelled at Jose Mourinho and his Chelsea side during his first spell. The only one that was, that at times, they could play boring football, something for which Makelele took heavy criticism.
Football purists at that time were used to seeing all action midfield players. Players who could attack and defend. Something that Makelele could not. He preferred to remain steadfast in front of that back four, like the anchor of a ship, waiting to stamp his authority on the game by breaking up and linking up play, respectively.
It was thought that Lampard was the catalyst in the Chelsea midfield with his goal scoring and perfectly timed runs into the box, and to an extent he was irreplaceable at that time but so was his partner. Chelsea went on to dominate English football under Mourinho and many more talented midfield players would come to play their football at Stamford Bridge, including Maniche and Michael Essien; both of whom were extremely talented but there would never be a replacement for Makelele – the man for whom a positional role has since been named.
The purists may have been right about one thing, Makelele was an extremely defensive player for a midfielder, but he allowed an attacking style of play. Chelsea always scored goals, with Lampard and Didier Drogba always at the forefront and with Joe Cole and Arjen Robben – the latter did not then have the work rate that he found later in his career – also very attack minded.
Makelele simply allowed these players to play. There can be no doubt that he improved every single one of his counterparts. Centre back Ricardo Carvalho, for example, could never have played outside of the defensive line in the way he did, charging forward, both with and without the ball if it wasn’t for Makelele controlling the game in front of him. While Lampard could not have timed his runs into the box so perfectly if he was closing down the ball on the edge of his own box, nor could Cole or Robben have shown such a lack of tactical and defensive awareness, both being at young at the time, if it wasn’t for the anchor man behind them.
Makelele truly gave a masterclass on being a defensive midfield player. He was the first, the original in the modern game and many chose to follow. It can’t go unnoticed that after that, so many players, once their legs had gone, chose to adapt their game to sit in front of the back four; most notably, another one of Chelsea’s underrated men – Scott Parker – who was understudy to the French international.
Parker did this so effectively as his career went on, that it could be said he had the best years of his career playing there, even winning Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year while at West Ham United in 2011, meaning it was not only the English game that Makelele had an impact on, but England’s international players as well.
These days, almost every team in the Premier League favours a formation that includes an anchor man, but before Makelele, this was far from the case. However, it may not all be positive, there is now a lack of box to box central midfield players who are capable of doing both jobs which was once a department in which English football thrived, with Darren Fletcher, now of West Bromwich Albion and formerly of Manchester United, possibly being the last of that particular breed.
Makelele himself may never have got the headlines but he most certainly deserved them. No team can be successful without its hardworking, unsung heroes, but no league should refuse to recognise or pay homage to a player that had such an impact on so many aspects of the game, both culturally and tactically. Whilst no player can be complete without great teammates.
Thierry Henry may have scored beautiful goals, David Ginola may have showed amazing footwork but Claude Makelele taught us even more. So, heres to you, Claude Makelele, pragmatic and brilliant, with such a will to win, an example and a teacher to modern day English football. A true revolutionary, and while maybe not the greatest of individuals, without a doubt, the greatest of teammates.
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