If Jonathan Wilson’s bible of football, Inverting the Pyramid, taught me anything, it is that football tactics are a matter of action and reaction. A constantly changing and ever-evolving realm of innovation and countering. When one method of play appears to have taken over the world, defeating all that come before it, a coach will discover the tactic that nullifies the seemingly perfect system.
Since Jose Mourinho tore up the rulebook on the stereotypical English 4-4-2 by employing Claude Makelele as a defensive midfielder, sat in front of his centre backs, it seems that no team can be without one. Whilst other Premier League teams had defensive players in their midfield, none were as single-minded and as specialised as Makelele. His sole purpose in the team was to sit, break up attacks, and play simple passes to those in front of him. His inclusion in the team gave the more creative and attacking players the freedom they needed, and was the catalyst for the shift from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3.
The importance of Makelele to Chelsea that season cannot be overstated, in a season when records tumbled, Mourinho declared that Makelele was his Player of the Year. His impact was something that Zinedine Zidane had foreseen when Real Madrid had sold him in order to make room for David Beckham the season before Mourinho’s arrival in England. The iconic Frenchman stated: “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you’re losing the entire engine.” Under Mourinho, Makelele and Chelsea won the Premier League by 12 points. In the process they set the record for the fewest goals conceded (15), the most clean sheets kept (25), the most wins in a season (29) and the highest number of points (95), all of which remain unbeaten to this day.
Makelele started 36 of the 38 Premier League games and was integral to the team and the style of play. Only Frank Lampard started more games in the league than Makelele that season. Such was the diminutive Frechman’s impact on the game that it gave rise to a new role on the football pitch, one aptly named “the Makelele role”. In two consecutive seasons whereby Makelele sat at the base of a three man centre midfield, Chelsea won the league title, losing just six games out of the 76 in which they played. Zonal Marking noted the brilliance of this Chelsea side by awarding them place number 13 in their list of Teams of the Decade.
The protection that Makelele afforded his defensive teammates was invaluable. He not only covered for the full backs, protected the central defenders, and afforded freedom to his midfielders, he also nullified any threat from central attacking midfielders playing for the opposition. As more and more teams began to imitate the Chelsea blueprint of having a Makelele type player in front of their defence, so fewer and fewer teams employed central attacking midfielders. Of course it would be completely illogical to play a Zidane, Rivaldo or Kaka in your side when you knew that their impact would be minimal. It is no surprise then that the rise of the Anchorman in defensive midfield, has led to the fall of the classic playmaking number 10.
Both Zonal Marking and Jonathan Wilson have spoken on this point, with Wilson stating that he believes Juan Roman Riquelme to be “the last of the old-style playmakers”. The inclusion of an out-and-out defensive midfielder or Anchorman in teams line-ups lead to congestion in the centre of the pitch. The number of bodies, and the extra defensive quality, meant that classic number 10’s were becoming redundant, as their role was being nullified. This in turn led to two tactical changes. The first was that creative players began to be positioned more on the wings, allowing them to drift infield when the space appeared, think Ronaldinho, Frank Ribery, Arjen Robben, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. And the second was that creative players were positioned deeper in the midfield so as to avoid the attention of the Anchorman in the opposition starting 11, think Xabi Alonso, Andrea Pirlo and Xavi.
In the current football climate many teams choose to play with an Anchorman, but in doing so they are simply suffering from a football hangover. With the creative players in teams now positioned out on the wing, or deeper in central midfield, the Anchorman has become a player with no real role. Afterall what good is playing a Makelele-type player in front of the back four when faced by the prospect of Pirlo or Xabi Alonso? The entire purpose of an Anchorman is to stifle attacks, and prevent the opposition playmaker from playing, so in order to do their job most effectively they would have to be placed much further up the pitch.
Sir Alex Ferguson was all too aware of this problem when faced by Real Madrid in the knockout stages of the Champions League in 2013. He knew that in order to function, a playmaker needed space, and the most space to be found was in front of Real Madrid’s centre backs. This was where Xabi Alonso positioned himself, and through him Real Madrid were able to dictate play. To counter Xabi Alonso’s playmaking, Ferguson employed Danny Welbeck in a subdued attacking role, but as his main duties were to defend and harass Xabi Alonso when in possession, it may be more accurate to dub it an advanced Anchorman, or an advanced defensive midfielder. To his credit Welbeck performed the role perfectly and Real struggled to find their rhythm and style of play. Unfortunately for United, Nani was to receive a rather harsh red card, and the match swung in Madrid’s favour, eventually defeating the Red Devils 2-1 on the night, and knocking them out of the tournament.
The decision to play Welbeck as an advanced defensive midfielder, and the success he achieved in that role is a lesson which all managers and coaches can learn from. As gifted a player as Xavi is at Barcelona, given the time and space to operate he will look even better. It is precisely because of his class that opposition teams need a tactic to directly counter it. Perhaps when Ferguson employed Welbeck in the advanced defensive midfield role against Madrid, he was showing that he had learned from the Champions League final in 2011 where Manchester United lost to a rampant Barcelona side. That night Xavi was the man pulling the strings, rather than fellow Spaniard Xabi Alonso, and his performance was mesmeric.
Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick were the men in the centre of United’s midfield that night, and neither of them could get close to Xavi. They were not given specific instructions to stay on him and cut the supply to the front men, and though Wayne Rooney was in a deeper attacking position, he was not given the Welbeck defensive role. With nobody to counter the playmaking of the midfield maestro, the game was played to his hymn sheet all night. He recorded an astonishing 148 passes during the final, with a completion rate of 95%, the highest passing rate for a United player was Rio Ferdinand with a mere 40.
In a more recent example of ignoring deep-lying playmakers, we saw Xabi Alonso break a Bundesliga record in only his fifth league match for his new team Bayern Munich. During a 2-0 win against Koln, Alonso had 204 touches of the ball, which equated to a touch every 26 seconds. According to Squawka, he also completed 175 passes, which was more than the entire Koln team combined. Xabi Alonso is undoubtedly a world class player, but even against opposition of the quality of Koln, nobody should be able to have a touch of the ball every 26 seconds. Quite clearly a team facing such a style of football needs to counter the threat posed, and as yet, nobody is doing it. Ferguson’s tactic of using an advanced defensive midfielder would be one such method, but as is clear from the video below, it was not one that was utilised. Alonso appearing ignored, rather than harassed.
With almost every team now employing a defensive midfielder, oppositions must adapt their own line-ups to utilise the space, and capitalise on weakness. One such method of doing this is by having a deeper-lying central midfielder dictate the style and tempo of the game. Barcelona have Xavi, Real Madrid have Toni Kroos, Bayern Munich have Xabi Alonso, and Juventus have Andrea Pirlo. Playing a striker in a deeper role with more defensive duties would counter this, as would playing a defensive midfielder further up the pitch solely to deal with his opposite number. As of yet no such tactic is really utilised, and until we see the development of an advanced defensive midfielder we will continue to see passing, possession and touches of the ball records tumble, as deep-lying playmakers are effectively ignored on the football pitch.
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This article was originally published on These Football Times on 7/10/14