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Nationaliteam No.5: The French Defensive Midfielder

December 5, 2011

Defensive midfielders have always existed in mindset and the role of defensive midfielder has always been in existence albeit in some form or other but it was the 1990s and the turn of the millennium that the position of the holding midfielder saw a great boom in popularity. Indeed, many have seen the role as so important that they feature two holding midfielders if not more in their starting selection. One nation that has had a profound effect on the popularity development of the defensive midfielder position is France.

To find the root of the boom that would occur at the end of the 1990s, Marcel Desailly’s use in a defensive midfielder role under the tutelage of Fabio Capello could be cited as a populist initiation. On Sacchi’s return to Milan, Desailly would be withdrawn into the centre-back position but the seeds of popular opinion were set and France would find themselves producing a plethora of talented players whose attributes lent themselves to the role of the holding midfielder. National teams generally try and utilise the qualities of their best players and inevitably it came to pass that they would feature two defensive midfielders in their tactical set-up. The two holding midfielders’ primary function was defensive, in effect operating as sweepers in front as opposed to behind the backline. In turn, this would give the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff, Christophe Dugarry and Thierry Henry freedom to attack the opposition. For France’s triumphant Euro 2000 campaign, the use of Patrick Vieira and Didier Deschamps (and at a later stage, Claude Makelele) showed a distinct difference in approach between the two defensive midfielders. Deschamps was an absolute defensive midfielder, excellent at winning the ball back but would leave it to his teammates to be more progressive with the ball. Vieira, while given more defensive responsibilities with the national side, is known more for buccaneering runs from deep, aiding his team’s attack as illustrated via his time at Arsenal. This created a 4-2-3-1 structure which was alluded to in the setup utilised by Roger Lemerre’s predecessor, World Cup-winning coach Aime Jacquet.

Prior to that with the successful team that took to the field in World Cup 1998, trainer Aime Jacquet used three defensive midfielders albeit with a rotation in policy (in terms of who would attack and defend in a given scenario). Didier Deschamps would often be the absolute defensive midfielder with Christian Karembeu and Emmanuel Petit supporting while occasionally linking up with attacks on an as-needed basis. The deployment of the trio was primarily created via the desire to enable Zinedine Zidane to have a relative free role. The trio would provide a stable platform for Zidane to not worry about defensive duties (not that he would anyway).

Upon Deschamps’ retirement from the international scene, Claude Makelele would not just continue from where Deschamps left off but would take the defensive midfield position and make it quite literally his own, popularising the holding midfielder position as what came to be known as “The Makelele Role”. Makelele would go on to glamourise the role as such and the success created by his deployment at Real Madrid and Chelsea saw the position become focal to more and more tactical set-ups rather than a necessary evil in a given tactical set-up. He was excellent at breaking up opposition attacks and seemed to be suspicious of being involved in any attack his team may have, instead simply playing the ball onto teammates more inclined to move forward. Such a simple style would become eulogised by a media that appeared to be dazzled by this new-found tactical idea (they were very, very late to the party naturally). For the national team, Makelele simply kept the standard high upon replacing Deschamps and with Makelele’s eventual international retirement came the question as to who would be next in line for the position.

France’s implosion in South Africa last year was blamed on the horrendous atmosphere at the training camp but tactically it also highlighted deficiencies. Domenech had kept to the rigid 4-2-3-1 that had served the national team so well in years past but it felt extremely dated as Brazil too found out to their expense. Age had naturally caught up with many of his squad but their play was predictable (an unfortunate theme of the World Cup as a whole). It was not necessarily the deployment of the two holding midfielders but rather their functions that took criticism. France had not developed and had just simply maintained the difference between the two holding midfielders.

The player who resembles the new life in the holding midfield role for France is Yann M’Vila who possesses the ability to be the figurehead for the new era under Laurent Blanc’s guidance. M’Vila appears to be in ability an amalgamation of his predecessor yet all in the place of a 5’11 frame. Mobility was something which France lacked greatly in the last World Cup but with M’Vila and the likes of Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye impressing, France appear to be on the right track for the future. M’Vila is not a new face to the set-up though as he made his debut back in 2006 but his experience with the group over time could stand him in good stead for the future.

Transition is a phrase that’s easily bandied about for a team but while World Cup 2010 was an abrupt end to one phase, this France team might be a little further progressed than people may think. Next summer’s European Championships will be a key moment for assessing not just the overall project but also how France utilise the holding midfielder.

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