Look through all the really successful teams of recent times, and you will find a few things they all have in common. A special player like a Messi or Rooney, a solid defence like the Chelsea team of 2004-2007, and a brilliant manager like Inter Milan when a certain Special One was at the helm. There is something that you may not see however, but rest assured it is certainly there. That of a holding midfielder – someone in the Makelele role, who goes about their business quietly, and unassumingly lets other more creative players flow forward without fear of being caught in possession.
Now look at the current United team, and the Arsenal team. What do you not see? That’s right you’ve got it in one. A quality holding midfielder. And boy is it punishing both sides this season. Both United and Arsenal have quality in abundance, and players to score goals, create chances and on their day be unbeatable. Van Persie and Rooney are two of the very best strikers in Europe, if not the world, yet neither of their teams are leading the Premier League, and both have had somewhat shaky starts in Europe.
Again and again it is highlighted by fans, pundits and opposition teams that what both sides are lacking in is that Makelele type player. Lets firstly take United – if you look at their recent games, even the one where they humiliated Arsenal 8-2, the Van Persie goal was created by cutting straight through the centre of United’s midfield. Likewise against City, they have no one to cut out the ball through the middle and slot into or in front of the back four when more creative players are caught up front in possession. This is not a recent thing – the FA Cup semi final winner for City could have easily been cut out by a Makelele type midfielder, yet was not, thus Yaya Toure cut through the heart of United and scored.
Neither Anderson, Fletcher or Carrick are quite good enough or suited to filling this role. Commenting on each player’s individual ability aside, as Carrick divides United fans like no one else can, there is a lack of a purely defensive player in midfield and the lack of protection for the back four is costing United time and time again.
The number of shots fired at De Gea this season on average per game is 19 – Chelsea and City average around 11 – both have the one thing United lack. A shield in front of the back four, a player able to cut out such shots before they occur. It is all well and good Fergie stating United are ‘too open’ when he refuses to buy a player to do something about it. It would not be impossible to see Phil Jones in that role for the Red Devils, yet the injury situation for United so far this season has prevented that from being tried out to full effect – even then, Jones is hardly a Vieira or Makelele and it seems certain Fergie needs to delve into the transfer market and buy someone capable of filling the role.
From the Gunners’ perspective, they have been lacking a quality defensive midfielder since Vieira left, and with a team who rely on their passing and creativity from the middle of the park so much, with players such as Arteta and Rosicky often caught high up the pitch in possession, a Makelele type player would relieve them of having to rush back and would comfortably avert the danger. Alex Song, whilst showing flashes of quality, is not at the level needed to really fill the Makelele type role, and this coupled with a defence that is notoriously shaky means Arsenal can be cut through like a block of cheese at times.
It is not just in Arsenal and United we see this – look at Spurs since the arrival of Scott Parker and the difference he has made to their team. Had the midfielder played in the game against Manchester City, one suspects a 5-1 hammering may not have come to pass.
Look around Europe – under Frank Rijkaard Barcelona were brilliant, yes, but they had a soft centre which Chelsea exploited to much success until Yaya Toure was introduced. Much like Keita, Mascherano and Busquets later, now they are not without a holding midfielder, allowing the likes of Iniesta and Xavi to push forward without leaving gaping holes in the midfield. A defensive midfielder even allows centre backs to push forward should they see the opportunity, seen at Barcelona – when they actually play centre backs in defence and not a 3–4–3 that is, and Carvalho is notorious for pushing forward, with Porto, Chelsea and now Madrid. This is afforded to him because of the ever present defensive midfielder, ready to slot in where ever needed.
There are no bigger culprits that United and Arsenal for ignoring the need for such a midfielder in recent seasons, and whilst United may have been able to get away with using players of mediocre ability in that position, Arsenal have been punished with six trophyless years, and that looks set to continue should steel not be inserted not just into the midfield but throughout their team.
United may have the bigger shock however, as in the Premier League they, up until now, have been able to retain their crown, with a managerial merry-go-round at Chelsea and Arsenal more fragile than a glass conservatory. However Manchester City now have not only money but real quality, and have run away with the league so far, culminating in a humiliating 6 -1 victory at Old Trafford. Whereas in seasons gone by United have only been found out in Europe, now they are being undone in their own back yard, and investing in a world class defensive midfielder will go a long way to stopping this. The role of a holding midfielder is one of the most important in the game, ignore at your peril, and both United and Arsenal are now at a stage where this can no longer be ignored.