Something strange has been happening in English Football this season. While we heap praise on the extremes, the out and out strikers or the defensive stalwarts, it’s the new breed of Makélélé’s that are bringing balance to the top teams.
In Greek mythology Zeus, the unsurpassed and colossal ruler of all gods, had an affair with Titan goddess Leto, who then became pregnant with twins. One of these offspring was born nine days before the other, and as a result was able to nurture Leto through labour.
Literally born as a nurturer and protector, Zeus granted this child a series of weapons which would aid in its sole purpose, hunting and protecting. For the rest of their life that god proved to be an able hunter taking down the most terrifying beasts with ease and grace, a capable nurturer of the needy and sick, and proved to be very protective of the animals in its domain.
Acting in the wilderness, producing admirable protection when called upon and courageous hunting, this child of Zeus was called, Makélélé.
Actually, that goddess’s name wasn’t Makélélé, it was Artemis, although offer any back four the protection of one devout figure and the vast majority would choose Makélélé before Artemis.
The Premier League this year has been revealing in many ways. A surprisingly high standard of goalkeeper has emerged across the league whilst the key position of out-and-out striker has been extravagantly underrepresented. But one thing that has mysteriously emerged is the perplexing tolerance of a defensive midfielder as a footballer who can’t play football.
This is even more confounding when one considers the increasing expectation of the goalkeeper as a potential option for the back-four, which works quite well for Manuel Neuer but has resulted in comical disaster in the premier league, Brad Guzan vs Man City and Adrian vs Southampton both spring to mind.
When we consider the top four in the premier league at the moment, three of this four have been at their scintillating best when one position was adequately filled. When Matić plays for Chelsea, when Carrick plays for United, When Coquelin plays for Arsenal, they look a different, more-assured team.
The issue then comes with the vast majority of defensive midfielders in the league. Players who disappear once their team have the ball and yet are not over-whelming consistent in providing cover to their back four. Periodically bypassed, offering themselves as an obstruction rather than protection, largely immobile, these players are for all intents and purposes a human speed-bump.
A defensive midfielder does not have to cover large amounts of turf in order to play with the ball. At Chelsea neither centre-half is capable of driving forward with the ball the way David Luiz was. But it doesn’t matter, purely because their number one favourite and regular pass is the one to a persistently nearby Matić, a Matić who will assist them in their defensive work and most notably in dominating the space where number tens tend to operate, demonstrating a master class in nullifying Coutinho and Cazorla this season.
He then pats his centre-backs on the back, takes the ball off them before they hurt themselves and initiates a trademark Chelsea counter-attack.
What is most revealing is hearing Makélélé describe his role under Mourinho. In a uefa.com documentary he told ‘the role I was being given was in front of the defence and not moving to much’
He went on to describe the key aspect of this role ‘I think that the key is to protect the central defenders, protect the midfield in front, and protect the full-backs as well, so that there is always a possibility to get the ball out.’
Protection by Makélélé is not just interception or covering, it’s far more than that. He possessed the ability to function when his team had the ball as well as without it.
Carrick does something similar, to the extent that he is often associated with playing the ball rather than the excellent defensive attributes he possesses. Like Pirlo, or Alonso, Carrick give his team-mates license to play. He facilitates everyone, with exceptional spatial awareness he relieves his surrounding players of any pressure by providing himself as an option.
Perhaps it is a cultural reflection that the defensive mid is expected to be a bull-dog, tackle loving, intercepting romping Gareth Barry. But playing a defensive mid as what is in essence an elevated centre-half limits a team’s ability once they have the ball. It is a similar issue that Ireland enjoy with Glen Whelan, and one that Martin O’Neill has baffling opted to resolve by playing McCarthy in a similar position, whilst leaving Whelan in the team. Two players for one job.
When Zeus gifted his off-spring with numerous weapons, he still expected Artemis to operate as a goddess. When Makélélé was given the Makélélé role, he was still expected to operate as a footballer. It’s not recognised in England, it involves immense pressure to always be available and operate as that link between defence and attack.
That’s a contributing factor as to why England haven’t had a player like Alonso, Pirlo or Matić. It’s also why Matić’s omission from the PFA player of the year nominee’s is damaging to football. Who wants to grow up to be Michael Carrick when they see the praise Kane or De Gea get for their attacking/defensive work? The current anchor-man midfield needs to be good at both, and also accept not being recognised for it.