Friday, April 24, 2009

Gang of Four: Great Defensive Midfielders

One more this week to get some momentum, then we're running it weekly on Fridays.

Being a defensive midfielder is a relatively new profession. As tactics guru Jonathan Wilson recently noted in The Guardian, the game used to hum and revolve around the box-to-box midfielder, a wonderfully classic and outdated calling. The very nature of the traditional, square 4-4-2 meant that whoever was filling the middle needed to be capable of moving forward and tracking back. If the player failed to perform both duties in equal measure, the void between defense and midfield was obvious and fairly easy to exploit.

Manchester United had a golden pair in Paul Ince and Roy Keane, a duo that were more than able to tear limb-from-limb in defense before hauling themselves up from the turf to join the attack and bang in goals from long range.

Now, as the demands of the beautiful game have evolved, the CDM is suddenly paramount, and the days of the flat midfield are well and truly over.

If you don't have a solid, reliable defensive midfielder, you're not going to win much. It's that simple.

The best recent example is Tottenham Hotspur. In the first half of the season, the midfield was hopeless, failing to provide tenacity in the tackle nor much energy for invention in attack. The rigor and the pace of the EPL proved to wear them down, as neither Jermaine Jenas nor Luka Modric were suited to perfecting both roles.

Along came January signing Wilson Palacios from Wigan, and the whole dynamic changed; chaos was replaced with balance, and Modric was able to concentrate on his natural attacking role knowing that he had ferocity in Palacios to cover behind him.

The CDM is the silent, consistent bedrock of any half-decent team, and after the jump, we look at four of the best.

1. Fernando Redondo, Real Madrid 1994-2000
Before Javier Mascherano hit the scene, another Argie ruled the roost in front of the back four. Fernando "El Flaco" Redondo (or the White Machine) played unfussy football, controlling games from defensive midfield with his accurate passing and persistence in pursuit of possession.

Hard-working and vastly underrated on a team that enjoyed attacking stars in spades--teammates at Real over the years include Eastern European scorers Davor Suker and Predrag Mijatovic, Spanish legends Fernando Morientes and Raul, Nicolas Anelka, McManaman, and Roberto Carlos--Redondo was, in no uncertain terms, the straw that stirred the drink.

Metronomic from the back, his ability to read the game and dictate the tempo were vital to a Real side that won La Liga and the Champions League twice during his tenure at the club. It was during that 1999/2000 CL run that he turned in one of the best single-game performances ever seen, flummoxing Roy Keane and Manchester United at Old Trafford in a 3-2 victory.

Ironically, he played further forward than normal during that game, and showed no signs of being unable to adjust. Besides running rings around Keane, Henning Berg and a still-maturing Paul Scholes, there was that assist, the backheel flick to himself through Berg's legs before squaring for Raul to tap-in to an empty net, brilliantly described by Rob Smyth as "the champagne moment" and as having "the devasting finality of a perfect conversational putdown."

They won the CL at a canter after that.

Redondo, being South American, was blessed with more grace and ball skill than his successors, and looking at the current midfield balance of the pugnacious Mascherano and the dynamic Fernando Gago, it's safe to say that El Flaco is the perfect amalgam of both; comfortable in that defensive nest, he could kill you with the pass, or, if you dared drop the shoulder and lean in, beat you on the dribble too.

When he departed for AC Milan, he suffered a nasty knee injury and barely featured for the club (just 16 appearances in 4 years), and selflessly returned much of his signing bonus and wages due to not being able to play. Imagine Anelka pulling that one. As such, with those ailments closing his career prematurely, Redondo never quite achieved over his full career what he managed during his tenure at Real.

Watch his calm demeanor in possession, no matter how many opponents lay in front of him. Skilled off both feet, he could find any teammate on the move. An errant pass from El Flaco was inconceivable. Redondo had incredible balance on the ball, and scored several important goals that were merely a bonus atop his other attributes (he tallied just 12 goals in 358 career appearances; 4 in 165 for Real).

The ultras rioted when he was sold to Italy, knowing the full extent of their club's loss. Watching these videos, I know exactly how they feel.

2. Claude Makelele, Chelsea 2003-2008
Poor Real Madrid. They'd already seen the best CDM in Redondo thrive and then leave, and his successor at the club, Claude Makelele, soon followed suit, lured to the lucre of the English Premier League where he'd turn in a phenomenal body of work.

When you consider the greatness of Frank Lampard, you must give plenty of credit to pint-sized Claude who tidied up every midfield scramble without complaint and provided the platform for the Blues' impressive lightning-quick accumulation of silverware.

With Makelele doing the dirty work behind Lampard, Robben and Joe Cole, Chelsea were unstoppable, doing the EPL/Carling Cup double in 2004/2005 and retaining the EPL trophy the following season. Mourinho declared him Chelsea's Player of the Year.

Chelsea are lucky he even ended up there; his crime in Spain was asking for an improved contract, which, in context, is understandable. Team President Florentino Perez was unashamedly assembling Los Galacticos, paying over top dollar for every star he could get his hands on: Figo, Ronaldo (back from the dead!), Roberto Carlos, Guti, Michael Owen, Zidane, and, the straw that broke the camel's back, David Beckham.

Upset at the rejection of his request, he handed in his transfer papers and Chelsea nabbed him for 16.8 million pounds, an absolute bargain. While Perez mocked Claude, calling him "average" and reckoning that "younger players will cause Makelele to be forgotten", his Real teammates knew it was a different story.

Zidane's quote went to the heart of the matter: "Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?"

His stamp on the game was so emphatic that the CDM position is informally named after him. Essien is the latest Blue to "do a Makelele", and there will be countless more to follow.

In the end, leave it to the notoriously elusive man himself to summize his contributions in defensive midfield:

"I really learnt how to play that role at Real Madrid where, if we were losing 1-0, we would say 'Right, lock up shop'. The four at the back and the one in front of them - me - would concentrate only on defence and let the others go and do what they had to up front. They would take the risks, I would take care of the opposition's attacks.

"In every team you need to know what your role is and one of the keys to my role is to keep the balance of the team right. So when Didier [Drogba] goes here, I do this. When Frank [Lampard] goes there, I go there. Same with Michael [Ballack]. When one person moves out of position, then someone else comes in and covers for them.

"When you play in my position you have to enjoy it. You can't be thinking 'Oh fucking hell, I don't get any goals'. You just enjoy it, you enjoy playing football, tackling, giving the ball. Just enjoy it. When you are small you have to tackle at the right moment. He might be tall, he might be strong but if you tackle at the right moment you'll win it. It's about timing."

3. Clodoaldo, Brazil 1970 World Cup
Considering that the CDM really didn't exist back then, this one is a bit of a stretch, but bear with me! Looking at the Brazilian midfield that year, hands-down the best WC team ever assembled, you'd be hard-pressed to find a matador amid the bulls. Pele in his twilight, Tostao, Jairzinho, Gerson and Rivelino all chomping at the bit to get forward, and Carlos Alberto surveying the fun from defense.

The cushion between Pele and Alberto was Clodoaldo, the agile, versatile holding midfielder known as "the Clove of Garlic" for his incredible skill on the ball (the idea being that opponents simply couldn't get close enough to him to dispossess, as if he reeked of that pungent bulb).

While strictly you'd consider him a playmaker, I'd liken him to the CDM before such a thing even existed; with Brazil attacking in fives and sixes, someone needed to hold the fort, and while his gifts on the ball were most praised, his gifts in the tackle were just as vital.

4. Gennaro Gattuso, AC Milan 1999-
The Rossonieri's very own red-and-black bulldog, Gattuso's achievements in defensive midfield are hard to ignore. One Serie A title in 2002/03, two Champions League winners' medals (and a runner-up finish in 04/05), a couple of domestic cups and of course, that World Cup trophy in 2006 that owed as much to him as it did his flashier, more refined compatriot (and AC Milan teammate) Andrea Pirlo.

While the world stood on in awe of Pirlo's virtuosity in attack, it was Gattuso's lung-bursting workrate that sustained the nation's success. Never shirking a tackle or a confrontation, he was Milan's Roy Keane, an emotional firebrand that came with a dangerously short fuse. Known as "Ringhio" or "The Growler", Gattuso's unedited intensity fueled the team around him.

Afraid of no confrontation or opponent (infamously, the in-your-face display toward Schalke's CDM Christian Poulsen -- seen in the video around 1:50 -- and the open-hand slap to Zlatan Ibrahimovic's face in a 2005 CL game against Ajax -- seen around 2:40), Gattuso threw himself into every tackle like it was the difference between winning and losing.

The necessity for a Gattuso, crafted in the mold of old-fashioned Italianbruisers like Claudio Gentile and Giacinto Facchetti, is essential in the modern game. As protectorate of his side's more delicate attacking resources, his presence in defensive midfield is not one to be viewed lightly.


Precious Roy said...

Best thing about Gattuso is watching him sing the national anthem. Think he wasn't even the 4th most important part of that WC-winning team. And when all is said and done Essien > Gattuso.

Still love him though.

Lingering Bursitis said...

PR: I beg to differ, but that's just me. I think he was rather important, same with Euro '08; they fell apart in the match with both he and Pirlo suspended.

And yeah, Essien's amazing too. Note I didn't call this "greatest" defensive midfielder! Plus I can't show Chelsea too much love.

Precious Roy said...

Pirlo, Cannavaro, Buffon. That leaves Gattuso 4th at best. Just saying...

Mike Georger said...

No Deschamps?

Lingering Bursitis said...

Georger: I tried to spread the love. Didier was a beast, no doubt, but I prefer Maka of the French DMs.

EbullientFatalist said...

I like all the selections. Redondo was so cool at the position - perhaps the quintessential CDM.

The next few seasons should see a few more CDMs come into their own: Yaya Toure, Lassana Diarra, and Blaise Matuidi.

ΓΌ75 said...

There are 2 CDMs I would love to have in any team for their ability to shut down the other team and rub their noses in it. Gattuso and Essien. You can have every one else.

Word verification: coment

Your Local Team said...

I saw the picture of Makelele and immediately thought Essien. Yes, Claude was great, but I think another Chelsea midfielder would deserve a spot in this lineup based on his ability to serve as a phenomenal midfielder, or to play in defense when he was needed.

Lingering Bursitis said...

Essien is the new king, sure, but he's still pretty young in the game. That's all.

Glad this feature is generating discussion!

Another I wanted desperately to include: Matthias Sammer. The ginger DM was a beast at Dynamo Dresden and Borussia Dortmund. Then again, he played a lot as sweeper too, and his versatility kept him off. Same with Lothar Matthaus, a guy who played fucking everywhere from attacking midfield to sweeper.

EbullientFatalist said...

LB: The second you mentioned Sammer, I slapped my head. Of course,Sammer. He won European Player of the Year as a CDM in '96. Not sure that'd happen today.

The Likely Lad said...

good call on palacios. the mad honduran has done more than anyone-- keane, defoe, etc. -- to change the dynamic. not a coincidence spurs are winning the same 1-0 games they lost all late summer and fall.

now get me some Muntari in my life and we'll be challenging for that CL spot again! (pre-season delusion starts early this year!!)

Joep Smeets said...

Redondo was a favorite of mine, eventhough he played for Real. Me being a barca fan, I've always been partial to Guardiola. It bugs me that most people think of a defensive midfielder solely as the ankle biting variety. Guardiola, whle his role was different from a Makalele, played just in front of the back four too. Couldnt tackle to save his life but evert single pass had a purpose. like redondo for Madrid, the absolute pulse of an entire team. beautiful to watch.

Precious Roy said...

Hey Joep:

Nice to see you dropping in to comment every now and then.