Certain footballers only truly become appreciated after it’s too late.
During Florentino Perez’s first Galactico-inspired spell as Real Madrid’s president, players of the calibre of Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham were all signed to add glitz and glamour to the grand old club.
Between 2000-03, Los Blancos won two La Liga titles and a Champions League under Perez’s presidency and his policy of signing the world’s best and most marketable players appeared to be working well.
However, three barren years followed in which Real failed to lift a single trophy. The main reason for their slump? The decision to sell Claude Makelele to Chelsea in 2003.
Despite possessing an abundance of attacking talent within their ranks, Real no longer had a defensively disciplined player sweeping up in front of the back four. The balance of the team was compromised and results inevitably suffered.
At Chelsea, Makelele was far more appreciated for his talents with the defensive midfield screening position subsequently being renamed as the ‘Makelele role’ in his honour.
Nowadays, Chelsea can call upon another elite defensive midfielder to anchor their side in the form of N’Golo Kante, who has regularly been nicknamed ‘Kantelele’ during his time in English football. Similarly to Real Madrid, the Leicester side has capitulated without their midfield general.
Kante is regularly touted as Makelele’s natural successor for his country and now club, but is the comparison an accurate one? With that in mind, Squawka has investigated the key similarities and defences between Makelele and Kante.
Let’s start off with the obvious, shall we? Makelele was a key member of the French national team in central midfield, doing the unglamorous yet imperative job of breaking up the play to allow his more creative teammates the platform to shine. Kante has taken on the mantle of patrolling the central area of the pitch for Les Bleus since the start of 2016.
Physically the two share striking attributes. They are almost exactly the same size – Kante stands at 5 ft 6 1⁄2 in, while Makelele is slightly shorter at 5 ft 6 in – and neither are lightning quick or particularly physically imposing.
In terms of their careers, meanwhile, Makelele and Kante were both relatively late bloomers, gaining moves to bigger clubs after putting in the hard yards lower down the football pyramid. Makelele started out at FC Nantes following spells with US Melun and Stade Brestois in his younger days and while he helped Les Canaris top the Ligue 1 table in 1994/95, he didn’t make his big move to Real Madrid until he was 27-years-old.
While Nantes aren’t one of French football’s powerhouses, their academy is an acclaimed one and Makelele was always regarded well in his homeland if little known elsewhere. In contrast, Kante had a far more obscure footballing upbringing, starting out at US Boulogne in Ligue 2 and establishing himself as a regular after they had suffered relegation to the Championnat National, France’s third-tier. Although Kante started his professional career at a lower standard than Makelele, though, he made his move to an elite club earlier, joining Chelsea last summer aged 25.
Finally, both players had transformative impacts at Stamford Bridge. In Jose Mourinho’s first spell in charge of the Blues, Makelele was the glue that held the midfield together, offering outstanding protection to the back four in Chelsea’s free-flowing 4-3-3 formation. In his five years in West London, Makelele won five major honours and was integral as the club lifted their first Premier League title in 2005.
Kante too has made Chelsea an infinitely better side since completing a £32m move from Leicester City last summer. While Makelele was tasked with helping to develop Chelsea into European heavyweights, Kante instead has had to help the club get back to their elite level following a truly dismal 2015/16 campaign.
Few players in Antonio Conte’s all-conquering 3-4-3 system are as crucial as Kante whose formidable midfield partnership alongside Nemanja Matic has enabled Chelsea to charge into top spot in the Premier League.
Despite taking on the moniker ‘Kantelele’ Chelsea’s current No.7 is far different in style of play than his supposed predecessor Makelele.
The standout feature of Makelele’s game was his positioning. Rarely was the Frenchman not in the perfect place to stop an attacking move in its tracks through intercepting any potential passes breaking through Chelsea’s lines of defence. He read the play expertly time and again.
Makelele was more than happy to put his foot in and make tackles when required to do so as well but only if opposition players happened to be in his radius on the pitch. Makelele patrolled the central area of the pitch from the edge of his penalty box to the centre circle, rarely breaking into the opposition half.
Kante, on the other end, is a far more dynamic player, covering every blade of grass in a relentless pursuit to retain possession for his team. Whereas Makelele held his position and waited for attackers to come to him, Kante takes to the game to his opponents, driving up the field to win the ball back off unsuspecting opponents.
He is also arguably more expansive with his passing too, taking the opportunity to spray passes long to speed up attacks as well as playing short, simple passes as Makelele used to do. This season, for instance, Kante has an average pass length of 17m in the Premier League, with 63.4% of his passes going forwards.
Another area where they differ is that Kante is arguably more heralded in his prime than Makelele was. While Leicester’s fairytale season last term initially centred around the goalscoring exploits of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, the understated job done by Kante became increasingly praised as the season wore on.
Since moving to Chelsea, Kante’s profile has been raised even higher and given the stark contrasts between the team’s form this season compared to last, he has been pinpointed as one of their few irreplaceable players alongside Eden Hazard and Diego Costa. In his mid-20s, Kante is already recognised as one of the most influential midfielders in European football.
In comparison, Makelele only received the plaudits he deserved as he approached the latter years of his career. When Makelele was allowed to leave the Bernabeu, Florentino Perez said (via Guardian): “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 Makelele to be forgotten.” Hindsight proved that Perez hideously undervalued the Frenchman.
The final word
Makelele is seemingly impressed with the manner in which Kante has blossomed from unknown Ligue 1 entity to Premier League winner, saying (via UEFA): “I do like N’Golo Kanté, but whether he’ll be better than me at it I don’t know. He needs time to learn the position, to learn more about the game. He’s a young player I like, but I hope he doesn’t get to be better than I was!”
If Kante goes on to enjoy the vast success that Makelele did during his career, the comparisons between the two will be made on an even more frequent basis.