Football is game that has constantly evolved since its inception. Throughout the years the game has seen many changes especially in the formations and thus the positions that players occupy. When the Premier League began in 1992 it would be a mighty task to find a team that didn’t play 4-4-2 with two conventional central midfielders. These midfielders often operated in a box-to-box role sharing the defensive duties. With the turn of the century many Premier league teams began to change and operate in a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 formation.
Chelsea’s signing of Claude Makelele in 2003 gave the Premier League a player who went on define the rules of what a defensive midfielder should play like and universally, the role was known as the ‘Makelele’ role. Ten years later we can suggest that the role is now on its way to retirement. In the Premier League, as well as around Europe, the defensive midfield role is now being occupied by great passers rather than the midfield spoiler seen in the previous decade.
A big contributing factor to this change in role has been the domination of the Spanish national team in international football and Barcelona’s recent supremacy in the club form of the game. Central to this dominance has been possession based football which relies on pressing higher up the pitch rather than employing a spoiler to break up the play. Arguably the champions of this role have been Barcelona and Spain’s Sergio Busquets or Juventus and Italy’s Andrea Pirlo, two players more comfortable in possession than without it. The main role of these players is not only to keep possession but start attacks, something that we are seeing now in the Premier League.
In order to assess this change we can look at the Premier League’s top four teams in the 2008/09 season and the most recent 2012/13 season. Choosing each team’s most recognised defensive midfielder we can see some key differences between the two seasons. In the 2008/09 Denilson was involved in a ground duel most often at an average of every 7.26 minutes. In the 2012/13 season, surprisingly Mikel Arteta was involved in a ground duel most often at an average of every 9.63 minutes. Whilst not a massive difference between the two, the next player most often involved in a ground duel in the 2012/13 season was John Obi Mikel at an average of every 11.38 minutes. This number is lower than the next two players involved most often in a ground duel in Javier Mascherano and John Obi Mikel himself at 8.29 and 8.34 respectively in the 2008/09 season.
Another statistic that shows that breaking up the play has become less important for the current crop of defensive midfielder is the average minutes per tackle stats. Predictably Javier Mascherano had the lowest average for minutes per tackle at 18.81 followed by Denilson at 24.04 and John Obi Mikel at 29.44. Other than Mikel Arteta, all of the top four’s defensive midfielders averaged a tackle at a higher minute average showing that their role now has less of an emphasis on tackling. In nearly all of the tackling criteria, a player from the 2008/09 season was involved in more often which helps to support this argument.
The next criteria we can look at are in terms of passing. We can expect that a defensive midfielder in the 2012/13 season will be involved more in the passing side of the game and this is supported by Mikel Arteta having an average of just under 81 passes per game. Although in the 2012/13 John Obi Mikel averaged around 55 passes per game, this is still higher than the 2008/09 seasons lowest with Manchester United’s Darren Fletcher averaging 52 passes a game. As well as this we can see a remarkable difference in the average number of final third entries. Michael Carrick entered the Final third a staggering 487 times compared to Denilson, who entered the final third the most in the 2009/09 season at 291 times. This shows a willingness to move forward more in the current defensive midfielder
All of the passing criteria were topped by a player from the 2012/13 season supporting of the argument that the 2012/13 season saw defensive midfielders being involved in trying to start attacking play. However, Denilson also performed favourably in the passing criteria which shows that position was in transition. A player such as Javier Mascherano excelled in the tackling facet of the game and can be seen as a more traditional defensive midfielder in the mould of Makelele. However Denislon showed in the 2008/09 season that the defensive midfielder position was becoming more creative.
So can we say that the Makelele role is no longer relevant? As we stated before football is a game that is constantly evolving. Within that evolution certain formations and roles become less prominent. Whilst tackling is something that will always be in the game and a key part of a defensive midfielders role, the tendencies of teams to press high up the field has meant midfielders are having to tackle less. Although there are still players like Cheick Tiote and Nigel De Jong, increasingly the defensive midfield role is being handed to more technically proficient players.
Creativity is now a part of a defensive midfielder’s arsenal and the top four teams in the Premier League are testament to this. This could be the reason that Mikel Arteta was moved into a defensive midfield position last season and why Michael Carrick is finally receiving the recognition that many felt he has deserved. The role can now be seen as more a deep lying play maker rather than the traditional defensive midfielder. Whether this role will evolve again is the next question but it is certainly possible within the game of football.
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