Belated replacements usher era of dominance
LONDON — Claude Makelele, Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane were the heartbeat of titlewinning sides of yesteryear. Alex Hess explains why their former clubs’ most recent engine-room acquisitions could have a similar impact...
John Nash, Robin Williams, Christopher Wallace: genius often comes with a flipside. In football, the pitfalls tend not to be so drastic, but they’re there all the same. It’s no stretch to use the G-word to describe Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele.
They were sublime for a time, but the price of their genius was the impossibility of replacing it. At Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, the past decade has told similar tales.
All three players arrived to usher their clubs into eras of unprecedented dominance: Keane turned one-time title winners into serial champions, Vieira and Makelele transformed also-rans into winning machines.
In United’s 13 years with Keane, they helped themselves to 12 major trophies; Chelsea won five in Makelele’s four full seasons in London, while Arsenal and Vieira earned seven in nine years.
Together, the three midfielders forged the modern era’s status quo.
Their departures have all been keenly felt. Arsenal’s post-vieira drought is well-documented: his final kick of a ball in red and white won the club its last trophy for nine years.
United and Chelsea suffered less acutely from the exits of Keane and Makelele, though their fortunes have oscillated in a way that never happened while they were on the books. None of the three have dominated quite as emphatically since losing their virtuosos: a combined 24 trophies in 26 seasons with them has dropped to 17 in 30 without.
Take Xhak The chronic inability to replace these men has hung like a storm cloud over each club. From Michael Carrick to Lassana Diarra to Abou Diaby, the trio’s supposed successors —lazily branded or not — have invariably and inevitably failed to live up to their billing.
United and Arsenal have each gone over a decade with a conspicuous absence in their midfield; Chelsea eight years.
Rarely has a transfer window passed with at least one club trying, and failing, to fix the problem. Now, it looks as though they may all have done so in the space of a single summer.
In north London, it’s no coincidence that Arsenal’s positive results have coincided precisely with Granit Xhaka’s appearance in the side. Against Liverpool, the team’s soft centre was bypassed as they let in four and lost. Since then they’ve gathered four points from six, conceding only a consolation.
Their standout player in a rampant defeat of Watford at Vicarage Road was the Switzerland international in the heart of midfield, his presence a healthy blend of robustness and refinement. Arsenal have had plenty of the latter in recent years but the former has been excruciatingly rare. It’s cost them.
Any talk of the ‘new Vieira’ would at this stage be madness, but it’s safe to say that, in style if not ability, Xhaka looks to be as worthy a successor as there’s ever been. A glance over the pair’s disciplinary records shows that there will, at the very least, be one common denominator.
Immediate impact Across town, N’golo Kante has been the standout summer signing of the season’s opening weeks. His showings have Chelsea’s most talented midfielder consigned to the sidelines, and on current evidence, Cesc Fabregas — the original Vieira successor, a decade back — can have no complaints.
If comparisons between Xhaka and his predecessor are premature, in Kante’s case they’re much less so. Early signs are that he may soon rival Makelele in both excellence and importance.
His performances at Chelsea have been characterised by exactly the same brand of unfussy firefighting as his countryman, his understated, purposeful range of passing further inviting the comparison.
Both specialise in plugging holes when their team-mates raid forward, spotting counter-attacks before they happen and snuffing out danger with minimal hassle. Simple enough on paper, but as demonstrated by John Obi Mikel, Ramires and David Luiz in recent years, not so easy in practice.
“He gives us confidence,” said Eden Hazard of his new team-mate. “We want to try to dribble past the opponent because we know if we lose the ball, he is there behind us.”
At Leicester, Claudio Ranieri encouraged the Frenchman to make lung-busting forward runs, to be a driving force as well as a destructive one.
Chelsea’s N’golo Kante, arsenal’s Granit Xhaka and Manchester United’s Paul Pogba