Claude Makelele celebrates his 48th birthday today. To mark the occasion, here’s a reminder of why he remains a Blues legend – not to mention one of the few players in world football to have had a position named after them.
Almost 13 years have passed since Makelele last pulled on a Chelsea shirt, which came on that fateful night in Moscow when the Blues narrowly missed out on winning the Champions League for the first time, yet his name is still regularly uttered by football supporters up and down the country.
‘The Makelele role’ is firmly ensconced in the English football lexicon, used to describe a midfielder who is willing to sit in front of the back four, rarely progressing beyond his fellow midfielder and, generally, sacrificing a shot at personal glory for the good of the team.
He was one of the key men in our 2004/05 title-winning side which conceded only 15 goals in the entire Premier League campaign, a record low in the English top flight, and the man who allowed the likes of Damien Duff, Arjen Robben and Frank Lampard plenty of attacking license.
Perhaps his brilliance in the role was because he too, believe it or not, had been considered an attacking midfielder earlier in his career.
‘At Nantes I played both an attacking and defensive role, but in Spain I was persuaded to concentrate on the defensive side: closing players down, constantly chasing,’ he said in an interview with the club magazine during the 2004/05 season.
‘I like that role, it makes me feel really useful in the team. I’d say my function within the team now is to cancel out danger, to prevent the counter-attack and to hassle the opposition.’
What he doesn’t mention, however, is that he was the man who so much of the play went through.
When other clubs attempted to replicate the system to replace their 4-4-2, the tendency was to simply remove a striker and replace him with a third central ball-winner in midfield. But Makelele was so much more than that – he was a deep-lying playmaker.
Chris Coleman, who was in charge of Fulham at the time, offered up the blueprint of how to shut him down by effectively using attacking midfielder Steed Malbranque as a man-marker. This was in March 2006, almost three years after his debut for the Blues.
The rest of the top flight can hardly claim they weren’t warned about Makelele. Zinedine Zidane, who was in the closing years of his playing career with Real Madrid, bemoaned his compatriot’s departure from the Bernabeu in the summer of 2003 shortly after the club had brought in David Beckham as their latest Galactico, stating: ‘Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine.’
He spent five years playmaking from deep and generally making life easier for those around him, most notably the Chelsea backline, as he won a whole host of honours.
Of course, won of those trophies came on the day he scored his first goal for the Blues, when we beat Charlton in 2005 before getting our hands on the Premier League trophy.
It was all set up beautifully as the Blues were awarded a last-minute penalty, with neither side having found the breakthrough, and Makelele ushered up the field to take it.
And then, of course, he took one of the worst spot-kicks ever seen at the Bridge – perhaps it was so bad that Addicks keeper Stephan Andersen was taken by surprise, as he parried it straight back to Makelele, who scuffed in the rebound.
The celebrations told the story of how much Makelele meant to Chelsea. It was utter bedlam for the next few minutes, the perfect starter before the main course of the Premier League trophy lift.
Jose Mourinho declared that Makelele was the Player of the Season, which of course was an award he could only dream of winning in a team full of superstars. The creation of a Players’ Player of the Year prize 12 months later was perhaps inspired by unsung heroes of Makelele’s ilk and it came as no surprise when he won the inaugural trophy.
By the time he left the club for Paris Saint-Germain in 2008, he had accrued a scarcely believable win percentage of 70.8 per cent, and his legacy at the Bridge has been felt ever since, with a number of players fulfilling the Makelele role.
Then there’s N’Golo Kanté, who was talked about as the ‘new Makelele’ throughout his maiden campaign at the Bridge in 2016/17, which ended with the Premier League trophy and a level of acknowledgment, in terms of personal honours, that his fellow countryman could only have dreamed of – including the passing of the baton by the man himself.
‘Some players are meant to be superstars, but others – like N’Golo and myself – must be happy making other people look good,’ he wrote in a column for the FWA Player of the Year brochure. ‘People talk about the Makelele position, but I am old and it’s time everybody called it the Kante position. N’Golo deserves that.’
That’s Makelele down to a tee, and it was no surprise to see him return to the club in the summer of 2019 as a technical mentor to our young players.
Happy birthday, Maka!