There is one position within the Chelsea framework of our title winning seasons of 2005, 2006 and 2010 that I believe has been pivotal to our successes and at the same time has developed into something very different but also very effective.
In 2003 Claudio Ranieri signed Claude Makelele’ from Real Madrid. Ranieri proclaimed that Makelele would be the “battery” of the team and Chelsea’s midfield shape had begun to evolve. Chelsea finished 2nd in the Premier League and reached the semi-final of the Champions League that season.
Jose Mourinho came to the club and implemented “his” 4-3-3 with Makelele the defensive holding midfielder and the Premier League took notice. Makelele has been given the ultimate compliment and had the position named after him. His job was to break up our opponents possession, win the ball and then give it to someone else.
Our formation and Makelele’s role was very effective for two seasons but after our back to back title winning season of 2006 the role became somewhat stagnant. Most sides would look to play Makelele and take him out of the game. Teams would even employ two wingers against us to play around him when they had the ball and when they didn’t pack their midfield or drop a forward back to nullify Makelele’s influence.
Chelsea lost the league to Manchester United losing only three games but drawing eleven times, scoring just 64 and conceding 24 goals. The following season 2007/8 Chelsea lost the league to United by just two points losing three games, drawing ten, scoring only 65 goals and conceding 26 goals. Finally in 2008/9 Chelsea finished third behind Liverpool and United by losing five games, drawing eight and conceding only 24 goals. Chelsea were solid but we needed to score goals. It was time for change.
In that summer Barcelona, in the Champions League final against United gave everyone an indication of how they had perceived the holding role to be and it has changed the mentality and identity of the position ever since. Sergio Busquets has been deployed as the midfield anchor to sit and protect the two centre backs and provide cover for the others to push forward, but he was also asked to do more with the ball at his feet. Busquets was never your out and out ball winner but was there to win the ball and play it.
Chelsea after three seasons of watching United win the league and after the decision was made to switch back to our tried and trusted 4-3-3 formation, employed Mikel as a midfield anchor rather than tough tackling defensive midfielder. We began to see Mikel not only win the ball and keep possession, but also to look to play killer passes and start Chelsea’s attacking play. It has become just as important what he does with the ball at his feet as to what he does without it.
Mikel still has his defensive duties in the side. He has fantastic positional sense and will slot into our back four between the two centre backs when we are defending our goal and will look to pressurise the man on the ball. However it’s what he has been asked to do with the ball that has impressed me with numerous assists already this season in addition to the simple demonstration of short passes we are used to seeing each week.
It gives the perfect example of how the role has changed in football and just how effective that position can be.
(Andy Seaby is the founder of renowned Chelsea blog, Chelsea Daft)