There are few players in the game that end up with an actual role named after them, but Claude Makélélé was one such person despite being seen in some eyes as a mere water carrier for the more talented players, insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Those who thought that couldn’t have been more mistaken.
Makélélé, born in 1975 in the now Democratic Republic of Congo – once a Belgian colony, came to France as a young child and gained citizenship before honing his valuable football skills there. He first came to prominence with a Nantes team that won the French title in 1995 and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. Back then the adopted Frenchman was initially known as a right-winger before his coach – Jean-Claude Suaudeau – realised that Makélélé was better at stopping others than he was at dribbling or passing, and with that, his game blossomed. A spell at Marseille followed, but he was in the south of France just one season before a move to Spain and Celta Vigo really kick-started his career.
At the north-western Spanish club, he truly came to the fore in the holding midfielder role through eye-catching European wins over Liverpool, Juventus and Benfica. It brought the Frenchman to the attention of Europe’s glitterati and possibly the biggest of them all – Real Madrid – during their famous Galactico era.
When he signed for Los Blancos in 2000 they hadn’t won a domestic title in three years, though admittedly had just won the Champions League that year. He was there for the next three years, helping win five trophies, including La Liga twice, during that period. He was the perfect complement to the likes of Zidane, Figo and Raul, they could attack with impunity knowing Makélélé had them covered. Those attackers knew what he brought to the team, but it wasn’t the same with everyone at the club. President Florentino Perez paid him a lot less than the other stars and when Makélélé went to him seeking a raise, he was rebuffed. Perez publicly derided him; he couldn’t head, rarely passed, wouldn’t be missed as younger, better players would replace him. He left in 2003, his place taken by a certain David Beckham. It was a signing that prompted the famous line from Zidane – ‘why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the engine?’ Chelsea was his destination as one of the first signings of the Abramovich era and arguably the most important.
Zizou was right, without their ‘engine’ Real would win nothing for three years, finishing fourth in La Liga the first season after he left. Contrast that with the upturn he brought at Chelsea. His first season saw them finish second in the Premier League to Arsenal’s invincibles and a first Champions League semi-final. Compared to what had gone before this was relative success, but with the arrival of Jose Mourinho the following season, Makélélé had a coach who knew exactly how to use him, and revolutionised the English game in the process, as he led Chelsea to real glories.
The 4-4-2 formation reigned in England back then but Mourinho set Chelsea up in a 4-3-3 with Makélélé very much a key man within it. The formation relied on one main striker – Drogba – and a defensive-midfielder – Makélélé. He shielded the back four allowing the other midfield players and attackers free to support Drogba. This defensive-midfield role was made for the Frenchman, it allowed him to display the full range of his talents. Contrary to Perez, Makélélé was an excellent passer and with such attacking talent on show he had the freedom to dictate play and set Chelsea on the attack, as well as snuff out the opposition. This was picked up by then Fulham manager Chris Coleman who was the first to realise Makélélé’s true role in the team and had him man-marked in a 1-0 win over their London rivals, something other teams subsequently followed.
Despite Coleman’s efforts, Makélélé’s influence on Chelsea and on the English game was undiminished. In his five years at Stamford Bridge he ushered in a new age for the London club, albeit helped by Abramovich’s money, but as was seen by the decline of Madrid after his departure money isn’t always everything. His time in London saw the title arrive twice, last won in 1955, along with four other trophies and a Champions League final appearance. Prior to his arrival, the club had just six major honours, that was doubled by the time he moved on.
His impact was seen across the English game – not just at Chelsea – with managers seeing the advantage of playing such a deep-lying midfielder, and as such you will be hard-pressed to find a top team that does not now play with such a player in their team – a player in the Makélélé role.