Forget your wingers and strikers for a moment and take some time to appreciate the guys that keep the ball moving in the middle
Incredibly fit. Great tacklers. Good passers. These are just a few of the credentials associated with proficient central defensive midfielders, or CDMs. Very rarely are they recognised for Ballon d’Or or other world player of the year accolades. Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro was the last defensive player to win the award in 2006. Unlike positions further upfield – playmaker, winger and striker – CDMs are very much the unsung heroes.
Like any other position on the field, some play the role better than others and the best ones all seem to have this ability to make things look so easy. They also tend to have one attribute that you won’t find in Football Manager – selflessness. Former French international Claude Makelele quite literally made the CDM position his own after joining Chelsea from Real Madrid in 2003. Makelele played for the south-west London club for five years and was mostly deployed just in front of two centre-backs in a three-man midfield.
Makelele was a beautiful midfielder and played CDM with so much grace; he soon coined a new name for the position – ‘The Makelele Role’. “This is a job without much recognition,” he told UEFA.com, “but you must enjoy running, you must love to be available and you must be at the disposal of your teammates.” The Congo-born midfielder most certainly enjoyed running and he always made himself available for his teammates. In today’s game, another Chelsea and current French international, coincidently, is winning high praise playing in exactly the same position as Makelele. N’Golo Kante, brought in from Leicester in the summer, is being talked up as one of the main reasons behind Chelsea’s success in the league this season.
Kante’s numbers make for impressive reading. He topped the defensive stats table for midfielders last season after registering 175 tackles, 156 interceptions and 326 recoveries. He also made a total of 1,869 passes, which averaged out to around 53 passes per match. He played 37 times for Leicester in the league. The French international has picked up from where he left off last season. So far he has played in every minute of Chelsea’s 16 league games – he will miss Chelsea’s Boxing Day fixture through suspension – and as we approach the halfway point in the season, Kante looks set to have an even better one numbers wise. The 25-year-old is already averaging 66 passes per game, that’s 13 better than his average last season.
Idrissa Gana Gueye is another player in the Makelele mould, currently holding fort in the middle of the park for Everton. The Senegalese international was the closest to Kante last season in terms of tackles, interceptions and recoveries made by a midfield player – 144, 141 and 344 respectively. Gueye operated in a few systems for his previous club Aston Villa last year and performed sufficiently, but was unable to save the side from relegation. Now under Ronald Koeman at Everton, the 27-year-old is currently the club’s highest performing midfielder. Whether in a two-man anchoring position or the one in the middle of a three-man midfield, Gueye is currently performing at the peak of his powers.
It beggars belief to think that not too long ago black players were not trusted to play in positions other than the wings or up front. The likes of Kante and Gueye, and so many others playing in the holding role, are following in the footsteps of Dutch greats like Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Edgar Davids, all of whom had distinguished careers as midfield players. Another Frenchman Marcel Desailly and England’s Paul Ince also come to mind when thinking of prominent black players that occupied the central midfield position with ease.
However, huge credit must go to Makelele who reinvented the CDM role, playing it with such distinction during his time at Chelsea that many pundits, analysts and football journalists alike often refer to it as ‘The Makelele Role’. The ultimate show of respect and adoration to a player that has clearly influenced many if not all of today’s holding midfielders who continue to show just how important the position is.
Claude Makelele, we salute you!