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Sunday, 11 July 2010

Makelele No More

Two. Now better than one.

Claude Makelele is furious. ‘Zut alors!’, he bellows, as he thunders round the bowels of Clairefontaine crunching into tackles with janitors, tea ladies, hat stands and telephone tables. ‘Mark van Bommel AND Nigel de Jong?’, he growls at a postcard from Thierry Henry. ‘Schweinsteiger AND Khedira?’, he snarls at Raymond Domenech’s copy of Russell Grant’s latest book. ‘Melo AND Silva? Xabi Alonso AND Sergio Biscuits?’, he rages, kicking three of the French national squad’s under-16 players down some stairs and over a fence.

But why is the greatest holding midfielder of his generation so apoplectic?

It is actually because Makelele is defined by two things. One is an urban legend concerning the size of his appendage and the other is the ‘holding midfielder’ role. Makelele is angry because as far as the latter is concerned, now there are two of the bastards.

The cult of the pair isn’t new in football. There were probably a pair of strikers on Noah’s bloody Ark (one small and quick, the other strong and muscular), along with two centre backs and a ‘central midfield pairing’. It’s not a stretch to imagine there were also two holding midfielders, passing the ball to each other across their eight yard cabin and clattering the wildebeest if it got too close.

The majority of successful teams in this summer’s World Cup relied on their two holding midfielders; their midfield screen in front of the defence. Whether the tiki-taka of Spain or the bludgeoning of van Bommel, teams have prospered from congesting things in front of their own defence and either a) ensuring they do not concede or b) breaking forward once in possession. While del Bosque was criticised for cluttering the midfield early in the World Cup (and it’ll be particularly congested in there in the final too), the system serves to open up space if you can have the players to pick the right penetrating ball. In Sneijder, Xavi, Forlan and Ozil, the semi-final contestants all had exactly that weapon.

The formation’s benefits are also more beneficial to attacking and pressing than at first it appears, though its most obvious exponents, Germany, enjoyed plaudits for their rapid counter-attacks. Three forward-looking midfielders (a link man and two wide men) are liberated to support a lone striker and the fluidity of this system has enabled Spain to press high up the field and having gained possession, control the game, before and after taking the lead. Teams are not beaten by successions of attacking waves anymore, but by having their rhythms disrupted and their possession denied.

Spain attacked and defended as a unit in the semi final and Germany’s impotence beyond the halfway line was a hallmark of this, as they struggled to get the ball back and keep it. Their travails, however, shouldn’t be replicated by the Dutch – who appear somewhat bolder – and it will be interesting to see if Sergio Ramos pitches his tent in the Netherlands’ half when he has to contend with Arjen Robben.

The benefits of this new 4-2-3-1 formation (or really, 4-2-some attackers) are most evident in watching those that have either neglected or been unable to employ it. Managers facing the Germans, Dutch, Spanish and even the Uruguayans have found this to their cost. An accomplished front four – three attacking midfielders and a lone striker – can set about the territory between defence and midfield and also have the bodies there to pressurise a single holding midfielder as they try and distribute. Playing this one defensive midfielder (for example Javier Mascherano) with Makelele’s old remit, even if he is ‘complemented’ by Maxi Rodriguez, is asking for trouble.

Maybe that’s the reason for Makelele’s eyeball-popping fury. That old remit, the old ‘Makelele position’ is no more. Possession is so much more than nine-tenths now; it’s more like nine and a half tenths. Rather than doing both, players either tackle OR distribute, just to make sure. The single holding midfield player, the champion of interceptions and sideways passes, is redundant.

But what of Makelele, now to be found sobbing in Didier Deschamps’ arms at the unfairness of it all, at an innovation rendered so swiftly obsolete? Well, if he can’t glean any consolation from the fact that it now takes two men to do a job he alone was once considered capable of, Claude can at least rest assured that his massive… … reputation will continue to dwarf them all. Rob MacDonald

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