Very few players had an impact as Claude Makelele in the Premier League. The French engine, as described by his peers, gave birth to the role coined ‘dirty workhorse.’ Today, in this era of fast paced, one touch football, the defensive midfielder or the anchorman who breaks down opposition attacks has become the most important player for a team on the pitch.
Current Brazilian coach Dunga was perhaps the first kind of ‘dirty’ player, but it was Makelele during his hay days at Marseille and Real Madrid who gave the position a new meaning. Despite struggling to settle down under Claude Ranieri, his dominance in midfield was one of the major reasons Jose Mourinho triumphed at Stamford Bridge during his first term in the early 2000’s.
It was also a key reason Frank Lampard prospered in a three man midfield as Mourinho frequently played the 4-3-1-2 system to maintain the solidity and keep their shape while the opposition had the ball. Whenever Chelsea had a poor game, they made sure they held on for the narrow 1-0 wins, thanks to Makelele’s immaculate positioning.
When Real Madrid sold Makelele to buy David Beckham from Manchester United, Zinedine Zidane said, “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” Florentine Perez, who claimed earlier that the Galacticos won’t miss Makelele, was later made to mince his words as Real endured three subsequent trophy-less years.
Over the course of years, there have been workhorses like midfielders in World Football – the Gattuso’s, Mascherano’s, Nigel De Jong’s and Busquets’. Yet, none of the three in the list can tackle like Makelele. Mascherano, De Jong and Gattuso tend to be rash while Busquets is more of a passer than a real ‘dirty’ player. There have been Patrick Viera, Gilberto Silva, Roy Keane and Fernando Redondo who could stake a claim for a place in the list, but it would be interesting if they were suited to the modern day 4-3-3.
Arsene Wenger might call Makelele as an anti-footballer but the Arsenal manager must realize it was exactly Makelele’s shadow due to which his side lost to the Blues last weekend at Stamford Bridge. The name is simple, Nemanja Matic. When the Serbian was sold by Chelsea to Benfica in January 2011 in a swap deal for David Luiz, hardly any eyebrows were raised. The then 23 year old had only made three appearances in one and half years in all competitions. With chances few and tough to come by, Benfica helped themselves to quite a scalp. Mourinho, though, signed Matic and looks to have already got the best out of the player.
Matic won Portuguese League Player of The Year award in the 2012-13 season at Benfica and despite questions over him being slow, he has been Chelsea’s vital cog in the wheel already this season. Last season, he bulldozed Yaya Toure at the Etihad as Chelsea sneaked out a 1-0 win and against Arsenal last weekend, and he was a treat to watch.
The Gunners had given good account of themselves in the first half an hour but rarely carved out a chance. Matic, in a congested midfield, showed his true ability; be it heckling down Arsenal’s midfield, passing acumen or brilliant switch of play. Sitting in front of the back four, screening the defense, he might not be the most pleasing on the eye, but that’s not what Mourinho wants. A direct threat from set pieces and a brilliant footballing brain, he is integral to Chelsea’s silverware hopes this campaign.
Not to mention Willian, Schurrle, Oscar and Hazard, who have been made to realize their defensive duties. The main reason for Chelsea being Scrooge-like in the defense is their transition from attack to defense. Perhaps this was why Juan Mata was sold to United, the Spaniard being ill occupied in his tracking back abilities. The Blues always have seven players behind the ball, double team out wide with a full back and a winger.
Diego Costa drops deep too to aid play from the midfield, and a quick transition to attack takes a matter of seconds. This Blues’ outfit is not only tough to beat, but their excellent organization, smooth tactical switches and transition excellence is a treat to watch. Jose Mourinho might not be a favourite of many, yet the Special One is showing the way in the Premier League. “Results matter over spectacles.”
Edited By: Girish Bhangre