Yvens Tiamou believes N’Golo Kante and Wilfred Ndidi are “two identical players playing in the shadow cast by Makelele, a true pioneer”
Do you believe in the Second Coming? How about reincarnation? In football we often compare players to the predecessors of the game, but do you believe in rebirth?
Claude Makelele was supposed to be the last vestige of his defensive midfielder kind that would be thought of only in nostalgia. He was the immovable object that broke up play, stopping any penetrative attacks on his team like an invisible force field. He was so great in his role that it was infamously coined ‘The Makelele Role’, but he was told that his services were no longer needed.
Football had moved on from Makelele, falling in love with the new and supposedly improved model of a defensive midfielder. This new model could destroy, but recreate a masterpiece with the same stroke. Think of Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets as a prime example. The game asked for its defensive midfielders to create from deep – a number 10 that played in the robust stature of a defensive midfielder. It was captivating this new model, like a proverbial ‘fuck you’ to the old status quo.
Makelele was the best at his job, and he was asked to leave, quietly, but it stunk of redundancy. The world wasn’t interested in his art anymore. To be quite honest with you, the world never really appreciated his art. Instead, they longed for something more thought-provoking. Any remnants of his work would be stockpiled into the deepest cellars never to be unearthed, until almost a decade later. What we didn’t know is that his reincarnations were being moulded in the shadows where the sun did not reach. Kids growing up to become the modern-day Makelele.
A throne that had been emptied by the Frenchman, gathering veils of dust waited earnestly for its rightful heir. The time has now come for a couple of candidates to challenge for the seat, two in particular. Both N’Golo Kante and Wilfred Ndidi have recaptured our minds, hostage to the art of tackling. Conquerors of their own lands at breaking up play and recycling possession like the environmentally friendly midfielders they are, sworn to protect the middle of the terrain from any transgressions.
Though, Kante is hardly new to these prose. His heroics during Leicester City’s fairytale league-winning campaign captured both our hearts and attention. It certainly captured the attention of Chelsea who signed him the following season. The west London club would then go on to benefit from his humbled service, as Kante became a back-to-back Premier League champion for two different teams. Clout.
Even Makelele himself noticed his sudden rise. “People talk about the Makelele position, but I am old and it is time everybody called it the Kante position. N’Golo deserves that,” he said, speaking to the Chelsea website.
As luck would have it, Leicester’s mourning of the loss of Kante was to be short-lived. They needed to replace his void and after the first attempt of cloning his excellency failed with Nampalys Mendy, blessings would be poured onto the Foxes on their second attempt. Signed from Genk last January, Ndidi has since shown his own credentials for the Makelele throne. He currently leads the table in tackles won in the Premier League, and by some margin.
When both players met at Stamford Bridge back in January the game ended in a stalemate, but the duel for supremacy in the middle of the park was an arena fit for a showdown. Both Kante and Ndidi displayed synchronous artistry, taking turns in breaking up play like a captivating martial arts fight. Blinking just once was enough to render you blind to the microscopic greatness. Two identical players playing in the shadow cast by Makelele, a true pioneer.
This ‘Makelele Role’ is not always the one that receives the plaudits. Nor is it the position that enamours the fans. It is often a laborious, thankless task that leads to nothing more than the softest pat on the back.
Claude, I hope you are watching wearing joy on your face. The position that you moulded as your own, that was overlooked and underappreciated for years, has been unearthed for its importance. Although it is not just these two players carrying the mantle, others across Europe are embodying your old work. They are all following in the path you laid down, though you needn’t look any further than Kante and Ndidi, the potential heirs to your throne.
Words by Yvens Tiamou