By Lawrence Ostlere
Real Madrid’s first Galacticos (‘superstars’) era was shaped by a plethora of big money signings and individual talent. Zidane, Ronaldo, Beckham and Figo are synonymous with this period in the club’s history – the most famous players in the world all playing for Real Madrid.
So when the team captain, on reflection several years later, named a far less glamorous signing as ‘the best player in the team’, people took note. “The loss of Claude Makelele was the beginning of the end for Los Galacticos…he was the base, the key”, said Fernando Hierro. Let’s explore the holding midfielder role in soccer:
When asked for my hypothetical World Cup XI recently, I gave the normal names you might expect to hear, like John Terry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Leonel Messi and so on. But something I realised was that while every position on the pitch had several world class candidates, one role was not so competitive – that of the traditional holding midfield player, or anchor-man. This is not just any defence-minded midfield player, but the specific and crucial job of protecting the defence by breaking down opponent’s moves with intelligent positioning and anticipation, whilst giving short simple passes to teammates to maintain possession – of which Claude Makelele was the master.
Real Madrid President Florentin Perez tried to defend the club’s sale of the player in 2003, stating “we will not miss Makelele. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents…and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres”. In reality Perez was right about the Frenchman, who undoubtedly lacked the skill, speed or physical presence of the stars he played with. But Perez got one thing wrong – Madrid dearly missed him, failing to win a trophy in the three years following his departure.
Makelele acted as the perfect cover when defenders Roberto Carlos and Michel Salgado would surge forward in much the same way that current Brazil manager Dunga did when captaining his country to World Cup victory in 1994. Dunga’s discipline to stay back and allow full-backs Carlos and Cafu to attack in wide areas was key to Brazil’s success, playing in every World Cup qualifier and finals match on their march to glory. Dunga, like Makelele, was renowned for rarely misplacing a short pass and for breaking up opponent’s play.
Today, there is no stand-out player for the role in my hypothetical World XI. But who are the contenders for the position of best holding-midfielder at the World Cup?
Two of the most obvious candidates have not made it to South Africa. Marcos Senna, who played such a pivotal role in Spain’s Euro 2008 triumph, has missed out through injury, whilst Esteban Cambiasso has been overlooked by Argentina coach Diego Maradona, preferring younger legs in midfield in order to effectively partner the ageing Juan Sebastian Veron. Other players past their best include greying Frenchman Jeremy Toulalon, hot-headed Italian Genarro Gattuso and Brazil’s Gilberto Silva.
Africa offers Ghanaian Michael Essien who is certainly world class, but his energy makes him more of a box-to-box midfield player, and he too is injured. Ivory Coast star Yaya Toure is a typically destructive anchor-man, but lost his place in the Barcelona team this season to Spain’s Sergio Busquets who is more of a passing midfield player – useful when in possession, but far less effective without the ball. So, if Busquets is preferred to Toure, does this suggest that the classic holding role player in the mould of Dunga or Makelele is no longer important?
More likely is that it simply shows there are very few players who currently do the job of holding midfielder at a world class level. Those who still have something to prove include England’s Gareth Barry, Netherland’s Nigel de Jong and Brazil’s Filipe Melo.
This summer I will be looking out for someone who could stake a claim for such a role in my hypothetical World XI. It could of course be a relatively unknown player, because not only does the World Cup bring the best players on the planet together, but also acts as a platform for lesser known players to establish themselves on the world stage. In the 2002 World Cup Senegal took this opportunity, beating France in their opening game and surpassing all expectations to reach the quarter finals. Players like Papa Bouba Diop and El Hadji Diouf earned deals to big teams in Europe based on their performances.
Whoever it is, my hope is that this year someone fills the hugely pivotal, if hypothetical, gap between my World XI’s defence and midfield, and in doing so revives the art of the holding-midfielder that Claude Makelele perfected.
As Zidane said when Makelele left and David Beckham arrived: “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”
Lawrence Ostlere is a freelance writer and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org