What honour could be greater than having your name permanently enshrined in the football lexicon? Cruyff, Bosman, Panenka – these names are eternally rooted in the vernacular. To have a playing role named after you, now that is another level of recognition altogether.
Claude Makélélé defined the modern defensive midfielder – he revolutionised the position. More than a decade after the Frenchman’s retirement, who, if anyone, has come close to emulating him?
The origin of the ‘Makélélé role’ will be forever intertwined with José Mourinho’s tactical revolution at Chelsea in the early Noughties. The Portuguese was one of the main instigators of the seismic tactical shift that saw managers adopt the 4-3-3 system en masse. Mourinho’s philosophy, which was designed to counter the traditional 4-4-2, highlighted the importance of the defensive midfielder like never before.
Mourinho required a player with the mobility to cover the attacking full-backs, the discipline to screen the defence and the ability to give and receive the ball at speed. He needed someone with tactical nous who could extinguish attacks pre-emptively. The defensive midfielder had traditionally been defined as a dedicated defensive position. However, in Mourinho’s system, the role served well-delineated attacking purposes.
🗣 "At one point in the game I went over to Ronaldinho and said 'I prefer that you show good manners in dribbling against me because if there are any of those PlayStation tricks… I'll send you to the hospital.” pic.twitter.com/SmFpbABDKq
— Football Tweet (@Football__Tweet) February 24, 2020
The deepest lying of a midfield trio, Mourinho’s defensive midfielder operated between the lines of defence and attack. Sitting behind two more attack minded central midfielders, the purpose of the extra man was to create an overload in the middle of the park. Drawing opposition players out of position freed up attacking full-backs to exploit the space they vacated. This was the genius of the the Makélélé role. It both stifled the opponents and facilitated the transitions between defence and attack.
How serendipitous for Mourinho that the perfect candidate was already on the books at Chelsea. Makélélé had the athleticism, work ethic and self-sacrificing nature he required. The Zaire-born French international, who had been undervalued at Real Madrid, joined The Pensioners in 2003. He arrived in London with a chip on his shoulder, a point to prove to his former employers. The following season, with Mourinho at the helm, Makélélé’s reputation was propelled to a whole new level.
Selling Claude Makélélé was the president's worst mistake in the Galáctico era. ⚪❔ pic.twitter.com/uw2vxxoUJ2
— Football Tweet (@Football__Tweet) April 29, 2020
Chelsea conceded just 15 goals during the 2004/05 league campaign – a record for the fewest goals conceded in a season. During Mourinho and Makélélé’s three and a half seasons together at Stamford Bridge the London outfit won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and two League Cups. This was a real purple patch in the careers of both player and manager. Makélélé received justified recognition as a top-class player, while Mourinho’s reputation (and ego) sky-rocketed.
Makélélé remained at Chelsea for an additional season beyond Mourinho’s tenure as manager. The Frenchman left in 2008, before a three year stint at PSG book-ended his glittering career. There have been many pretenders to his throne since his retirement in 2011. Few, if any of them, are worthy of true comparison.
However, the whole debate about a successor was somewhat tainted when ‘the new Makélélé’ became the fashionable way to refer to any young defensively minded midfielder. The media created the mystique surrounding it, they continue to present it as some unattainable accolade. A holy grail of sorts. It is rather deflating that the comparison, which was originally intended to be complementary, has become such a burden to those it is bestowed on. It is their curse.
Makélélé shared a dressing room with his first heir apparent. Lasanna Diarra was signed from Le Havre in 2005 with a keen eye on the future. The obvious superficial similarities aside, Mourinho’s intention was to have Makélélé groom his own replacement. Inevitably, Diarra failed to live up to the unrealistic expectations. The midfielder never really settled, playing a bit-part role at Chelsea over the next couple of years, before moving to Arsenal in 2007. His nomadic career took him everywhere from Portsmouth to Madrid to Abu Dhabi.
Next in-line was Jon Obi-Mikel. The Nigerian international’s arrival at Stamford Bridge in 2006 was heralded as a great coup for The Blues. At 6’2” Mikel had a much more imposing presence than Makélélé, but didn’t share the same level of mobility. A difference in class, as well as style, the two were not exactly cut from the same cloth. Nonetheless, Mikel was a great servant to the club, playing over 350 times during his 11 years with the Londoners.
In his formative years, Frenchman Yann M’Vila was widely touted as Makélélé’s next descendant. His breakthrough 2009/10 campaign at Rennes drew rave reviews. Frederic Antonetti, then manager at Rennes, even proclaimed that M’Vila, “reads the game like Makélélé, has the presence of Vieira and can pass the ball like Yaya Touré.” M’Vila, whose career highlight was a one-year loan spell at Inter, has spent the majority of his time playing in the freezing colds of Kazan. Spot-on then Monsieur Atonetti!
Yann M’vila plays for Olympiacos, I remember when we were linked with him for about 3 years
— MR DT (@MrDtAFC) March 11, 2021
N’Golo Kanté is probably considered the closest thing to a second coming we’ve seen. The Frenchman shares the relentless approach to ball-winning, the desire to win every 50-50 and has a similarly well-oiled engine that allows him to persist where others concede to lethargy. However, there are also some clear positional distinctions between him and Makélélé.
When Leicester won the title in 2016 Kanté was partnered with Danny Drinkwater, operating in a box-to-box role. In Ranieri’s 4-4-2 system, both midfielders shared the offensive and defensive responsibilities, neither in a dedicated deep-lying role. Kanté performed a similar function at Chelsea during their title-winning 2016/17 campaign. Antonio Conte’s remit for the Frenchman – to press aggressively, all over the pitch. He appeared to be, and sometimes was, everywhere at once.
That season Kanté was often paired with the more defensive-minded Nemanja Matić. The Frenchman was expected to play as a shuttling midfielder, without strict positional responsibilities. Indeed, under the stewardship of Lampard, Sarri and Conte, the 30-year-old French international has been asked to play in a variety of positions and roles.
13 – N'Golo Kanté recovered possession of the ball 13 times last night against Atlético Madrid, the most ball recoveries by a Chelsea player in a Champions League match since N'Golo Kanté's 13 against Barcelona in February 2018. Omnipresent. pic.twitter.com/RQkmGT1fxj
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 18, 2021
Makélélé has been quite outspoken on comparisons between the two. On one hand he has been complimentary of Kanté, but he has also been quite critical of a perceived weakness in his compatriot’s game. In a recent interview Makélélé stated, “I expect more from N’Golo, because he can be better than me. He needs more communication with his defenders. I know he is shy, never talks, he just wants to do his job. But I think he can do more. You want him to have more responsibility.”
While Kanté was busy wowing Leicester fans back in 2016, Real Madrid’s own Makélélé successor was enjoying his breakthrough season at the Bernabéu. Casemiro’s role at Real is perhaps the most similar to Makélélé’s at Chelsea. His primary function in Zidane’s side is to win possession and facilitate Real’s creative midfielders – Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. Makélélé has agreed with the comparison in the past.
“Yes, he reminds me of myself. Some thought I was just running, but technically, you have to know where to be and what to do. Casemiro is very smart and is always well positioned. He can score goals too which I didn’t do much [laughs].”
Similarities between the Brazilian and the Frenchman aside, use of the ‘next Makélélé’ label has become a rather trivial act. Former Real and Man City midfielder Steve McManaman likened City’s Rodri to Makélélé, saying, “He (Makélélé) very rarely got the headlines. Rodri for me is exactly the same. Quite often it’s Rodri’s ball which leads to something.” A quality player there is no doubt, but most consider Rodri’s role at City to be quite different. It’s a more progressive role than Makélélé’s. Rodri is more Busquets than Gattuso.
Over the past couple of seasons, there have been plenty of rather misguided proclamations. Spanish media have repeatedly framed Rennes wonder kid Eduardo Camavinga as ‘Zidane’s own Makélélé’. Earlier this year ex-Tottenham striker Darren Bent drew comparisons between Makélélé, Pierre-Emile Hojberg and their roles under Mourinho. Then there was that time Fabio Capello compared Jack Wilshere to Makélélé …
When asked about a position being named after him, Makélélé said, “I didn’t invent anything. I didn’t do anything radically different. I am simply a more complete footballer.” A tad egotistical perhaps, but, his overriding sentiment leads me to conclude – you may only compare a complete footballer like Makélélé with another complete footballer.
In this regard, there is currently just one defensive midfielder in the world that can be held in the same esteem – Bayern’s Joshua Kimmich. Of course, the two players differ in many ways. Mourinho’s tactics are not the same as Flick’s. Makélélé played alongside Lampard and Essien, Kimmich is usually partnered with Goretzka as a duo. However, they do share a similarly shaping experience. That is, they are both versatile, and have played in a variety of positions throughout their careers.
Kimmich 😍 pic.twitter.com/RfQoH32JaU
— Between The Posts (@BetweenThePosts) March 7, 2021
Makélélé began his career at Nantes as an winger. A technically proficient player, he also had the required pace to play the position. Kimmich, on the other hand, began life at RB Leipzig as a central midfielder. During Guardiola’s tenure at Bayern Kimmich was used as a utility player – deployed as a centre-back, right-back and central midfielder. It wasn’t until Hans-Dieter Flick took over in November 2019 that his current holding midfield role was cemented.
It is this versatility that makes the two similar in this writers mind. Kimmich may play more expansively, have a better passing range and attacking prowess, but the Frenchman, in his prime, was probably a better ball-winner. They are both complete players in their own right, capable of gracing any team on the planet. Kimmich may not be the direct successor to Makélélé, but, in my estimation, he is the outstanding defensive midfielder in the world at the moment.
The Makélélé name will undoubtedly endure the ages as the others have. I expect the term will be become increasingly valueless, further diluted. To be honest, I’m okay with that if it fortifies Makélélé’s legacy. He was a tremendous midfielder, one of the best we’ve ever seen. He is deserving of the pedestal upon which he sits.