Be­lated re­place­ments usher era of dom­i­nance

Lesotho Times - - Sport -

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

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