The Déjà vu with the Casemiro Role
On the eve of El Classico, Faraz Ali Khan looks at the similarities between the Brazilian enforcer Casemiro and the legendary Frenchman Claude Makelele after whom the position was named.
In a rapidly evolving modern game where the forwards and attacking midfielders garner majority of the viewer attention and scrutiny, it’s no wonder that the holding midfield role remains underappreciated. Over the years, center backs, with their stoic presence and unrelenting positioning, have captured the audience’s imagination. Who can forget Nesta’s last ditch tackle which has now established itself in the annals of football history. And when defenders fail to stop the forwards, it’s often left to the goalkeeper to pull a rabbit out from the hat. And because of that goalkeepers often have a larger than life image with the fans. But the humble holding midfielder goes on with his thankless job as the ultimate wingman on the football pitch, introducing the coveted ball to his companions without taking any due credit for it.
Since the turn of the millennium, Claude Makelele has been one of the cornerstones in bringing about the holding midfield revolution in the modern game. His trademark ‘Makelele role ’ has helped rewrite footballing tactics as teams began shifting from the traditional midfield duo (4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1) to a midfield triumvirate (4-3-3, 4-3-2-1, 5-3-2 and a few other variants). Makelele was not the most physical of players. Nor was he the archetypical three-lunged footballer running from one end of the pitch to the other over -and over again. His passes were short and his goal output for the Madrilenian club was negligible. (1 goal in 145 appearances)And despite all these shortcomings he was a key player for his team, one of the greatest assets for two football clubs (Real Madrid C.F and Chelsea F.C.) due to his inimitable sense of positioning and reading of the game. He sat at the base of the midfield and provided a defensive shield to the centre backs which allowed the other midfielders and the fullbacks to bomb forward at will and wreak havoc in the opposition half. He became the fulcrum of the team and provided balance to support the rich collection of attacking players of his team.
After a successful two year stint in La Liga with Celta Vigo, where he began the process of moulding his game into that of a true ‘Anchorman’, Claude Makelele earned a move to Real Madrid for a price far less than his valuation. As part of his Galactico policy, incoming president Florentino Perez had triggered the buyout clause of one Luis Figo from Madrid’s perennial rivals- F.C. Barcelona ,making the Frenchman’s arrival rather low key. Perez’s ultimate goal was to fill his roster with a plethora of attacking footballers who were as explosive on the pitch as they were revered in the marketing department. Makelele, signed to fill the Fernando Redondo shaped gap in the midfield, was a misfit in this agglomeration of stars. His game lacked the flashiness of his teammates.He wasn’t the most commercially viable name, nor did he possess the looks of a Greek God. He had 0 Liga goals in three seasons. He wasn’t the one making the last ditch tackles in the box either. Makelele’s influence on the game revolved around the intangibles – his intelligence and his reading of the play. With him playing at the base of the midfield shielding the centre backs, the creative advanced players such as Guti Hernandez, Raul, Zinedine Zidane, Steve McManaman, Luis Figo, focused almost exclusively on attacking. Madrid also had attacking fullbacks in Roberto Carlos and Michel Salgado. Both of them bombed forward to provide crucial width to the offense which let the wingers cut inside to either link up play or be scoring threats in the box. Makelele’s deep positioning and cover ensured the center backs weren’t exposed when possession was turned over. He freed up Madrid’s creative players to have the freedom to express themselves. This freedom made them more dangerous individually and that danger led Madrid to win either La Liga or the UEFA Champions League every year of Makelele’s stay with them. (2 Ligas 2000-01, 2002-03 and the UCL 2001-2002).
With Makelele playing a stellar role in Real Madrid’s success you would expect the player to have some leverage in contract negotiations. But Florentino Perez has the knack of doing the unthinkable (both good and bad). In a move similar to disposing fan favorite Mesut Ozil to Arsenal, Perez sold Makelele to another London club – Chelsea. If the transfer was not enough, Florentino Perez added insult to injury by claiming,
‘’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’’
Makelele left and during the subsequent three seasons, which also coincided with the last three seasons of Florentino Perez’s first tenure at the helm of the club, Madrid had disappointing results – No La Ligas (two times runners up), no Copa del Reys (one time finalists) and unable to progress beyond quarter finals in the Champions League (one quarter final appearance). Without Makelele, Real Madrid lost their functional base, the solid foundation upon which the creative players performed. Without that foundation there was no support or freedom for the advanced players to create without exposing their defense. Madrid lost the balance, which is crucial for teams to work as a unit and be successful on the pitch. Not surprisingly, the players did not approve of this move. Zinedine Zidane, famously quipped, ‘’Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?’ (Makelele was replaced with David Beckham)
Makelele’s transfer saw the fall of one European superpower unable to replace a seemingly expendable player (the likes of Thomas Gravesen and Fernando Gago failed to do what Makelele so successfully did). In sheer contrast the transfer move also saw the rise of Chelsea under the reign of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.
After 12 years of flirting with the Defensive Midfield (DM) position by playing a Deep Lying Playmaker (Xabi Alonso, several inconsistent players Lassanna Diarras, Javi Garcia, Pablo Garcia, Emerson, Nuri Sahin, Michael Essien, AsierIllaramendi) as well as an Advanced Midfielder (Toni Kroos) , and in the process spending a ridiculous 213.7 million Euros on defensive midfielders , Madrid have finally found another player in the mould of Claude Makelele — an heir apparent to the legendary French destroyer in Carlos Casemiro. Sure the Brazilian neither has the passing range of Xabi Alonso, nor the elite orchestration abilities of Fernando Redondo. But what he lacks in his distribution ability, he makes up for it by curtailing the distribution abilities of his opponents.
2016 began with the era of Zinedine Zidane — the Galactico coach for the team of Galacticos. The former Castilla boss promised breathtaking, possession-based football and a permanent presence of the ‘BBC’ forward trio. He reintroduced a 4-3-3 anchored by Toni Kroos behind a duo of Luka Modrić and Isco, with Casemiro finding a comfortable spot on the bench. It started off well, but then tougher games came up and Isco and James Rodríguez lost their form. By March, after Madrid had limped to a 1-1 draw at Málaga and a 1-0 defeat at home to neighbouring Atlético, Zidane threw a chance at Casemiro. And, boy, did the lad grab at his chance!
Casemiro focuses solely on defensive duties thus allowing his teammates to concentrate exclusively on the attacking aspect of the game. He provides a sense of déjà vu by sitting at the base of the midfield providing a defensive shield to the centre backs, thus allowing the other midfielders and the fullbacks to bomb forward at will and wreak havoc in the opposition half. He has become the fulcrum of the team and provides balance to support the rich collection of attacking players of his team.
His detractors claim that Casemiro struggles in bringing the ball out from the back with a rather average pass completion rate. They point out Casemiro’s distribution and ball retention abilities are exposed when faced with a high press. They are clearly oblivious to the fact that even the best midfielders of the generation- the Xabi Alonsos, the Andrea Pirlos, have all been susceptible when a high press is directed at them to destabilize the fulcrum. Madrid used this excuse to almost sign Paul Pogba. Approaching every transfer window with the sole intention to purchase the hottest kid in the block, the shiniest toy which catches the eye, an oft followed modus operandi at the club, is why Madrid usually fails to have a team functioning as a well-oiled machine. It is this state of influx where James Rodriguez finds himself in, playing a position which doesn’t exist on the formation sheet. If Madrid simply do what other clubs do i.e. take sporting decisions based on performances and reward the ones consistently repaying their faith on the pitch, it will only lead to better team harmony and squad unity which will always reflect on the performances on the pitch. Although it is true that destroyer midfielders are useful only in specific circumstances and are redundant when trying to break down an opponent, and Casemiro is very much a destroyer midfielder lacking a creative bone in his body. Sure his game is not easy on the eye a la Fernando Redondo or an Andrea Pirlo or a Sergio Busquets (he’s one of a kind anyway) but Casemiro fills up a gaping hole in the Madrid midfield.
And Casemiro’s critics like to focus on only one of his roles- the midfield enforcer. If unleashed to play as a Box to Box midfielder like in his Porto days, the Brazilian is capable of providing a reasonable offensive output to the game. He has the physicality to his game as well as the discipline to mark opponents. He’s an asset in set piece situations, wins aerial duels, wins back possession almost at will, intercepts and has the uncanny ability to tackle excellently without having to go down. He’s the quintessential backbone of the Madrid midfield. And if these attributes aren’t enough, he has also scored winners late in the game as Las Palmas found out in March. Casemiro has performed commendably in the big games of last season and the DM position is his to lose.
People criticize Casemiro for what he is not. But he needs to be appreciated for what he is. He is not Paul Pogba or Marco Verratti but he is quintessential to Zidane’s Madrid. The high end midfielders would have cost a pretty penny in transfer fees as well as in wages thus forcing their inclusion in the line up almost every week. This excessive baggage of a non negotiable starting status is not found in Casemiro, who at the very least can provide a rotation option with Isco or James Rodriguez in games where Madrid are expected to bulldoze the opponents, and there are quite a few of those games every season. Besides, there are games where possession, flair and creativity are needed more than defensive stability. This adds further weight to the Casemiro – Isco/James rotation proposition in a long season featuring games against diverse opponents.
Casemiro cost Real Madrid a cumulative 12 million Euros, peanuts when compared to their other players or high end midfielders at elite football clubs. Which makes it all the more impressive that he is such a vital cog in Zidane’s machinery. Despite not being favored by Zidane when the Frenchman first took over in January, Casemiro’s importance has shown in the side, and Zidane couldn’t help but put the Brazilian in the team for every match, including all pre season games as well as the Liga fixtures. With him involved, Madrid has been unbeaten in the UCL (18 wins from 20) and Zidane’s side have a 100 per cent record in Liga (14 wins from 14 games) as well as a record equalling 16 game winning streak to boast about. When quizzed about the Brazilian ball winner this is what Gareth Bale had to say, “He has been our Makelele. We know that behind us he is going to fill every hole and tackle everything that moves, even if it’s the referee. He has been great.” In 2003, Claude Makelele was shipped to Chelsea as Real Madrid under-appreciated their most important midfielder. In 2016, hopefully Real Madrid has learned from their horrendous mistake, and will keep the defensive midfielder at the club to play the Casemiro Role.
Sources: 1. Soccerbase.com