Liverpool may be rewriting the record books this season, but Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side of the previous two campaigns and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea of the mid-2000s cannot be quickly erased from the pantheon of great teams in English football history.
And at the heart beat of both those sides lay two of the greatest midfielders to have ever graced the Premier League; Fernandinho and Claude Makélélé.
While both may not have started their careers in the position which would come to define them, they are two of the best exponents of the ‘holding midfielder’, with the Frenchman excelling so much there that it was named ‘the Makélélé role’.
As Mourinho and Guardiola, two of the greatest managers of the modern game came to England, these two players would serve as the bed rock for their title-winning sides with each pivotal in both the defensive and attacking sides of the play.
Here we try and split the hairs that separate these two follicly-challenged greats to decide who can be considered the better player.
Guardiola’s side between 2017-2019 may have lined up in a 4-3-3 but English football has rarely seen a midfield trio like the one the Spaniard would deploy to such great success.
Fernandinho sat behind not one, but two attacking midfielders, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, who in any other system and under any other manager would not have fit into the same starting lineup, but it was the Brazilian’s ability to spot danger and mop up behind them which gave Guardiola license to deploy both.
When Mourinho arrived at Stamford Bridge in 2004, he interrupted Makélélé’s summer holiday to let the then-France international know how important he was to his plans. And as the Blues stormed to two titles, the former Real Madrid man was pivotal due to his positioning rather than individual brilliance.
At the base of a 4-1-2-1-2 or 4-3-3 opposition midfielders struggled to cope with Makélélé’s positioning as they couldn’t close him down without leaving a more advanced Chelsea midfielder free.
Acting as a defensive screen is a huge part of the role they play so it’s a tough one to call but Makélélé pips Fernandinho given he relied upon his position rather than athleticism to shield his defence.
When Makélélé left Real Madrid, their president Florentino Perez couldn’t help but have a parting shot at the Frenchman who turned to the Premier League after being paid five times less than some of his teammates.
Perez, in an interview to France Football (via The Guardian) said: “We will not miss Makélélé. His technique is average… 90% of his distribution either goes sideways or backwards. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres.”
The obviously bitter Perez may have been harsh in his condemnation of the Frenchman’s ability on the ball but he didn’t need to have exceptional distribution for it to be effective, as, in the system he was deployed demanded, a short, simple crisp pass was as devastating as a raking cross-field ball.
Fernandinho also adheres to this idea of short, precise passes rather than the Hollywood attempt and was the start of so many moves while City were in their pomp. Very few player’s in European football combined his ability to progress the ball from deep while avoiding the long pass when he occupied that central pivot.
This combination, coupled with his consistency on the ball, sees Fernandinho take this particular category.
Interestingly, both players arguably entered their prime when they hit the wrong side of 30.
Makélélé arrived in England having played 11 full seasons of top flight football and while he was certainly more of an athlete in his days at Nantes on the right side of midfield, by the time he had found his home in front of the defence he had to rely on his exception awareness, honed during his time alongside the disciplined Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho at Celta Vigo rather than his athleticism.
Fernandinho also possess an innate sense of where to be just when he’s needed, but in the 10-15 years or so that has passed between their playing careers, the speed and physicality of the game has certainly increased. With a focus on fitness and pressing much more prevalent for Fernandinho than Makélélé.
Given that the Brazilian has been able to keep up with the attackers of today comfortably in his 30s, this puts Fernandinho ahead when it comes to a physical comparison.
Claudio Ranieri, Makélélé’s first manager at Stamford Bridge, described his new signing as ‘one of, if not the best, playmakers in the world,’ as quoted by The Independent, never considering him just a defensively-minded player.
The Frenchman’s coach at Real Madrid, Vicente del Bosque, also saw the attacking promise in his game, as he told Makélélé that he had the perfect skill set to be both the ‘first defender and first attacking midfielder’ as Michael Cox writes in The Mixer.
While more Chelsea moves of that era started with a Makélélé pass than you might think, Fernandinho has to take this category. The Manchester City man was involved in a huge number of the chances his side, a greater attacking force than that Chelsea team, created. With Fernandinho‘s incisive, pinpoint through balls splitting the lines for De Bruyne or Silva to deliver the final pass, he truly was the hub of that all-conquering force.
While it was always going to be hard to look past the man the role is named after, even when that position already had so many names (holding midfielder, sitting midfielder, screening player) Fernandinho comes out on top here.
The fact that he tops three of the four categories should in no way imply a clear superiority to Makélélé, who ranked very close for each section.
Regardless, both will go down as two of the all-time great midfielders in English and European history, as Fernandinho still has time to add to his legend.