‘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.’
These are the words of Florentino Perez, President of Real Madrid, after Claude Makélelé had left for Chelsea in 2003. Little did he know that it would be the beginning of the end for his celebrated Galacticos, now missing the glue that kept the enigmatic parts together.
Winner of 78 French caps, 5 league titles across 3 countries, a Champions League and a multitude of domestic and continental championships, Makélelé is a hugely celebrated defensive midfielder, and his influence is still felt across the football world; clubs search for the tough, cultured centre-midfielder needed to fill the ‘Makélelé role,’ the vital cog to assembling a top-class football team.
Typical of players of his ilk, the 5ft 7in was the ultimate unsung and under-appreciated hero, especially while at Madrid, competing for the limelight with the likes of Figo, Zidane and Ronaldo; yet, each of these talents knew who the most important player at the club was, and who would be missed the most. Since he left, Madrid have failed to even reach the final of the Champions League, with often cited weaknesses in defensive scructure and midfield organisation as reasons why. With Makélelé, there were no such issues.
Small but deceptively strong, Makélelé combined exceptional positional ability with peerless timing in the tackle, whilst an industrious work-rate meant he was always in the right place at the right time. As the first line of attack, his economical style transitioned phases of play from defensive to the forwards, offering an outlay forwards and backwards meaning posession was rarely squandered.
True, he was never going to outjump the likes of Michael Ballack, imperious in central midfield tussles, but it was never the point; he would hussle, harry, jockey and pull, and if he didn’t get the ball then he would force the opponent into a mistake. In his position, he was flawless. Many have tried to copy his style but few, apart from Javier Mascherano and Lassana Diarra, a direct understudy at Chelsea, have got close to perfecting it. Every defensive midfielder placed in front a defence, whether it be Cambiasso, Hargreaves, De Jong or Song, is a tribute to the influence that Makélelé on the sport, and in particular the transitional nature of midfield play.
Off the pitch, the affable and likeable Frenchman has had a string of beautiful and high profile girlfriends, most notably model Noemie Lenoir, cultivating a personal cult quite unlike his quiet and dependable on-field persona.
His influence cannot be underestimated, and his style of play has moulded and inspired the possessive, build-from-the-back football systems that most of the biggest and most successful teams utilise. Every great team now has a player in the Makélelé role. Not bad for a man who Perez claimed would be quickly forgotten.
By Joseph Trotter for This Is Futbol