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Remembering Claude Makelele

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LONDON - DECEMBER 16: Claude Makelele of Chelsea in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on December 16, 2007 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
LONDON - DECEMBER 16: Claude Makelele of Chelsea in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on December 16, 2007 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Total football is a sham.

While the world paid its tributes to Paul Scholes' brilliance when the Manchester United legend announced his retirement following the 3-1 loss in the Champions League final against Barcelona, another phenomenal player was saying his goodbyes. Claude Makelele is hanging up the spikes at the end of the season, overshadowed by other superstars even at the end.

He never drew universal praise in the way that, say, Andres Iniesta does. Makelele was allowed to leave Real Madrid in 2003 after three years at the club and in highly controversial circumstances. History hasn't been kind to Florentino Perez's words upon Makelele handing in a transfer request, with the Real Madrid president famously talking down the midfielder's ability:

We will not miss Makélelé. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn't a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélelé to be forgotten.

Chelsea disagreed, much to the club's benefit. It's a little bit silly to re-hash just what Makelele brought to the team on a Chelsea fan's site. I presume you're all aware of his ability to get the ball and then not relinquish it. Makelele was the man to break up opposition attacks and then ignite our own, and he more or less single-handedly made the 4-1-2-3 Chelsea played viable.

In other words, he was quite good. I've never been sold on him being one of the best midfielders in the history of the world, but he's certainly very close. He was, after all, described as one of the best players during the Galacticos era at Real Madrid, and his arrival at Chelsea coincided with the Blues becoming a Premier League and European force.

Makelele's position as a destroyer/passer rolled into one obviously wasn't flashy and meant that he had his fair share of detractors - Perez the most obvious, of course. His style of play also drew criticism from those more inclined towards deep thoughts. Jonathan Wilson is fond of a quote from coaching legend Arrigo Sacchi in regards to the prevalence of players like Makelele:

It was about exploiting qualities. So, for example, we knew that Zidane, Raúl and Figo didn’t track back, so we had to put a guy in front of the back four who would defend. But that’s reactionary football. It doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplying effect on the players’ abilities.

In my football, the regista - the playmaker - is whoever had the ball. But if you have [Claude] Makélélé, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball. It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting x amount of talented players in and balancing them out with y amount of specialists?

It's a powerful and compelling argument made by one of the greatest names in football history, but it's one that I think is also fundamentally misguided. Sacchi is arguing for total football - generalists, rather than specialists - which is something that goes contrary to the way actual talent is distributed.

Not all footballers are good at the same things. Makelele had exceptional vision, decision-making and tackling, which made him on of the most capable players in the world at one specific role - his. There are arguments to be made for total football, certainly, but when push comes to shove ability isn't handed out in one block of footballing talent.

Salomon Kalou can't aim. Paul Scholes can't tackle. Wayne Rooney can't breathe without using his mouth. Expecting modern footballers to be good at everything to the point where they can feasibly perform every job on the pitch is veering off into something very much approaching lunacy. It's far more viable to play players in positions that maximise their talents rather than having generalists who are good enough at every facet of the game to excel in a total football style. Makalele shouldn't have to apologise for fitting so neatly into a effective system (one that I'd describe, incidentally as... collective and harmonious).

Claude Makelele was an excellent player and a true Chelsea great. We've missed him since he left, just like Real Marid fans have since 2003 and Nantes fans since 1997. No matter what you might think of his style of play, nobody can deny that he was very, very good at what he did. Football is diminished in his absence.