It has been nearly ten years since it happened, but if you listen closely you could still hear it: the unrepentant pouring of scorn all over Claude Makelele’s playing style by Real Madrid president Florentino Perez.
“We will not miss Makelele,” he infamously snarled after the Frenchman completed his £16.6m transfer to Chelsea back in 2003. “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.”
Makelele’s contract was at the heart of the much-publicized dispute. He earned far less than team-mates like Zinedine Zidane, Raul, and Ronaldo and wanted a raise to complement his level of importance to the team, but Perez felt differently about his role’s vitality and thus refused to raise his salary.
Despite the Spaniard’s presumptuous claims to the contrary, Makelele wasn’t forgotten, however. Instead, the very qualities spat upon by Perez proved key in helping Chelsea to second place in the league the following season as well as the semi-finals of the Champions League. These very qualities received lavish praise from his Real Madrid and Chelsea colleagues as well as myriads of other onlookers. So much so, that the defensive midfield role was affectionately dubbed, “the Makelele role.”
That role has lessened in importance in recent years, particularly because teams are now focused on ball retention rather than gritty defensive work. As such, this is the era of the deep-lying playmaker. A fancier name, but it doesn’t change the fact that the players who play the role don’t get the goals, don’t do the flashy tricks, and don’t grab the headlines. They continue to fly under the radar.
Twenty-three-year-old Milan Badelj proved no exception after arriving at Hamburg under those exact circumstances. He had stepped into Luka Modric’s boots at Dinamo Zagreb after the latter signed for Tottenham Hotspur in 2008. Gradually, he became the heart — and captain — of his team. But despite his impressive development, Europe’s big clubs were unmoved. In the end, a measly £3m was all it took for Hamburg to do a deal. Still, manager Thorsten Fink wanted reassurance.
“It’s a no-brainer — get him!” was the response from Slaven Bilic, Fink’s former team-mate at Karlsruhe and former Croatia national team manager, after being contacted.
With a performance score of 662, a figure that ranks him as the club’s second-best performer behind club captain Heiko Westermann, Bilic’s high opinion of the player seems justified. Frank Arnesen’s as well.
“He has something which is missing in our current squad,” noted Hamburg’s sporting director after announcing the player’s transfer. “He is a playmaker but not a classical style number ten. He pulls the strings from a deeper position, is an intelligent player, and a superb passer of the ball.”
So club legend Rafael van der Vaart may be the one standing on the pedestal, but propping it up is Badelj. He has brought composure, spark, and fight to a Hamburg side that narrowly escaped relegation last season.
In his final home appearance for Dinamo Zagreb, he described his performance as one that “summed up his time at the club.” He had scored an own goal in the first half to draw Maribor level in their Champions League qualifier, but had shrugged off his mistake to go on and net the game winner. At Hamburg, his display in the 2-2 away draw with Borussia Monchengladbach earlier this season, which saw him rack up an impressive Performance Score of 135, sums up exactly what his playing style is all about.
He works hard just in front of his defence and his efforts on the day proved no exception. He was outstanding as he sought and nullified threats put forward by ‘Gladbach’s players.
He also showed his ability to influence his team’s attacking play, showing off his ability to side-step players in high-traffic areas as well as his flawless vision when in possession — either deep or near the penalty area when he broke forward from his deep position.
His weaknesses were also laid bare. For one, although he recovers well, he tends to get beaten easily by tricky opponents. Also, despite standing at over six feet, he is not as strong as he should be, particularly when it comes to headed duels.
He also likes to shoot at goal. However, given he isn’t allowed to break forward as much as he was used to at Dinamo, he takes the majority of his shots from long range. He has to get more of these shots on target, though. He missed both his attempts versus ‘Gladbach and currently has just a 27% shot accuracy this season. In fact, his only goal of the season to date came from the penalty spot.
“Definitely I’d need to work on one-on-one situations and changing rhythm during my runs,” Badelj acknowledges, “and then on everything else: passing, shooting, dribbling and everything else there is; I simply want to raise everything on a higher level.”
This is true, especially if he is to prove influential when handed other roles on the field. For example, he played in the hole in the 1-1 draw away to Wolfsburg, but struggled to make things happen. He is accustomed to making his forward runs from deeper positions as well as dictating the game’s tempo from there. As can be seen below, despite being asked to play higher up, Badelj couldn’t help but drop deeper and into his comfort zone. He has created 17 chances for his team-mates so far this season, good enough to rank him third behind van der Vaart and Dennis Diekmeier, but none of these were created in this match.
It’s no wonder, then, that he picked Wayne Rooney as a player he wants to emulate. “I want to be like Wayne Rooney,” he envisioned. “He is like a machine…He is hard to stop. I would like to have his determination and explosiveness.”
Those qualities would certainly add a dangerous dimension to his game going forward, but, for now it’s clear that Badelj‘s ideal role is that of the deep-lying playmaker. There, he is in the thick of the action and, with an average of 59% of his duels won so far this season together with his neatness and vision on the ball, it’s obvious that he is thriving in it.
Frank Arnesen’s transfer policy may have been called into question before, but there’s no questioning the signing of Badelj. He may not be grabbing the headlines, but with the Bundesliga continuing to gain exposure and persons nowadays familiar with the importance of players like him to a team, it’s only a matter of time before Europe’s elite clubs take notice.
And once they do notice him, the decision to pry him away from Hamburg will be just like Slaven Bilic said: a “no-brainer” indeed.
By Joel Ramey