Claude Makelele arrived at Chelsea in 2003 after three successful seasons at Real Madrid. In his time at the west London club he came to define a position and approach to playing it with such success that his name has become synonymous with the function. The Makelele role is, in effect, the deepest lying midfielder of a midfield three in a 4-3-3, or the base of a midfield diamond. While it has largely defensive connotations, the role does in fact serve an attacking purpose as well. Makelele was an converted winger, having played this more attacking role at Nantes, and was thus technically proficient and quick. At Celta Vigo and later Real Madrid, he played with defensive responsibilities and attacking ones; operating in a two-man midfield, Makelele and his partner would stage their forays forward so that one was covering and the other advancing. This fostered a positional discipline, especially at Real, where his job was largely to protect and feed the ball to the advanced creative talents of the Galacticos.
At Chelsea, Makelele became even more focused on defense. This was in large part due to a tactical shift brought about by Jose Mourinho, who became head coach in 2004. While Makelele had played as the deepest midfielder under his predecessor Claudio Ranieri, either in a 4-4-2 alongside Frank Lampard, or at the base of a midfield diamond, Mourinho brought in the 4-3-3 that had brought him such success at Porto. Makelele became the anchor, playing behind two more attacking or shutting midfielders. The 4-3-3 has a clear advantage over the 4-4-2, which is one of the reasons teams started to employ a three-man midfield against what had been, until Mourniho and others instigated the shift, the predominant tactical set-up in Europe’s main leagues. Makelele could sit between the defense and midfield line, leaving him spare if the two opposition midfielders picked up their opposite men. If one pushed forwards to take Makelele, then the other midfielder was free and if a wide player moved inside to create a three versus three, then that meant a full back was free to push forwards, unmarked. This facilitated transitions from defense to attack, as the opposition found it hard to stifle a move forwards without adjusting their system to match the 4-3-3, or dropping to a 4-4-1-1, where the attacking midfielder could mark Makelele – obviously, this in turn reduced their own attacking options. Crucially, then, the Makelele role was not simply a defensive one, screening the defense and moving across to protect the forays of increasingly adventurous full-backs.
It was also a transitional position, the link between the defense and midfield, that allowed a player to act as the fulcrum, avoiding long punts forwards that would often see possession lost, especially with only forward operating between two wingers. Instead of bypassing midfield with clearances, or trying to find midfielders who were man-marked with direct passes, a player between the lines could take the ball, shield it and turn and play forwards or wide to the full-backs – if that player was technically accomplished and physically strong, as Makelele was, they could even lure opposition midfield out of position as they sought to close down, creating more space. And, crucially, it is a role born of a tactical shift to the 4-3-3; without that shift, a player performing the same role in the 4-4-2 would leave their midfield partner isolated as they dropped deeper, either leaving them two for one, or requiring wide players to tuck in – though, of course, this does work in a strict 4-1-3-2 with attacking full-backs. The Makelele role, then, is both positional and functional. Positionally, the player sits in the front of the back line, shielding the central area, but also covering the flanks.Functionally, the role requires discipline, tactical intelligence, and awareness of teammates’ movement – win the ball, or receive it, and move it on, quickly, without risk, but always trying to find a teammate in space. Makelele himself had the skills to accomplish this, both the screening, ball-winning element, and the transitional one. While the Makelele role itself has at times ended up being viewed as a purely destructive role, or one occupied by limited players who are unable to pass well, or both, in its purest form. The Makelele role is bot defensive and attacking, stopping the opposition, and then beginning an attack from deep.