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May 12, 2003

The hunting dogs

Manchester United used to have a defensive midfielder called Remi Moses, whom they bought from West Brom in 1981. He was christened by his Old Trafford colleagues with the affectionate nickname of 'Dogshit'.

When a local journalist asked one of the players why they called him thus, he replied 'Because he's everywhere.'

I was reminded of Moses this week as the web pages and several newspapers began to drop the Beckham theme and instead concentrate on the equally intriguing question of who might be brought in to replace Roy Keane in the Manchester United midfield next season - if replacing a player like Keane is really possible.

Milan's Gennaro Gattuso is the latest to figure in the target list, but only a fortnight ago there was talk of Real Madrid's Claude Makelele too. Of course, Remi Moses was never as good as either of these players, but he fulfilled the same function - what the Spanish call 'El perro de caza' (the hunting dog) - the guy in midfield who does the dirty work, breaking up the opponent's play and doing the fetching and carrying for the more gifted figures alongside who need to conserve their energy for the more creative work.

These players are often ignored by the press and public alike, and no-one ever votes for them as FIFA player of the year. A player like Keane gets slightly more of the limelight than usual because of a combination of his (erstwhile) attacking qualities and the sheer weight of his personality, but in general these chaps are the ones sweating it out down in the engine room, getting their hands dirty whilst the ship sails on.

They represent a noble breed who rarely get the praise they deserve, but it seems interesting that just recently the dogs are beginning to have their day. Both Zidane and Ronaldo said recently that they rated Claude Makelele as the most important player in the team.

Read into the public announcement what you will (i.e. they want to get rid of him, or they want him to stay), but Ferguson's alleged interest is a perceptive one. Makelele is indeed the most important player for Real Madrid, since without him his more galactic colleagues can be starved of the ball. But of course, it's not as simple as all that. No manager will ever dispute the importance of the hunting dog, but the public often miss the plot.

Makelele for example, is not rated at the Bernabéu, because of his tendency to sometimes give the ball away - but everything's relative. Zidane, Guti and Figo never give it away, but that hardly condemns poor Claude. He's not there to spray 40 yard passes around the park. But at the big clubs, the public reaction counts, especially in Spain.

The other aspect of this theme is that it raises the question of exactly what we mean by 'midfield'. The favoured pattern, at least in La Liga this season, has been to line up a pair of players in what one might roughly call the 'centre' of operations, flanked by two players to the right and left who in the old days would have been called 'wingers' but who now supplement the creative department.

The only novelty in this scheme is that the teams who have most prospered in Spain this year have been those who have found the best balance between the beauty and the beast within the central pairing. Real Madrid may have the best destroyer, but a part of their problems this season (if problems they really are) has been deciding on the identity of the other central midfielder.

Since Zidane is what the Spanish call a 'Todo-Terreno' (a four-wheel drive) and fits the profile of the all-rounder, it seems facile to categorize him as 'central'.

Moses: Dogshit
Moses: Dogshit

Zidane's greatest virtue is his ability to drift, to turn up in any part of the field and have a positive influence. So in order to stabilize something amongst all this fluidity, Del Bosque has often stuck Flavio alongside Makelele, with mixed results. Now that Guti is there, everyone seems happier.

Valencia have begun to wobble alarmingly of late, but they are nevertheless a team that favours the presence of a hunting dog. Ruben Baraja scores goals, but is essentially a more sophisticated version of the breed. An ever-present now in the Spanish national side, he's another that Fergie might want to have a look at.

Valencia's recent problems seem to stem from a lack of variety up front, well though the giant Carew has played all season, but the balance in their midfield has also suffered in the same way as Madrid's. The young whippet Pablo Aimar is another attacking midfielder who likes to have the freedom to roam, so Baraja has never had a truly creative colleague to partner him in the more fixed orbit of the midfield scheme. Rufete, De Los Santos, Aurelio - none of them have really fitted the bill.

On the other hand, the surprise team of the season, Real Sociedad, have found themselves with the perfect pairing. If they win the title this year, an ever-more plausible prospect after their win at in-form Mallorca, the talk will be of Nihat and Kovacevic.

But in central midfield they have found the perfect marriage between the two types under this week's microscope - Xabi Alonso and Mikel Aranburu. Alonso made his debut in Spain's midfield last week against Ecuador and looked as though he'd been doing it for ten years. But at club level, whilst the young Alonso orchestrates, the mild-mannered and boyish Aranburu does the hod-carrying. The press at last seem to have taken notice, and the young Basque is beginning to appear more often in the headlines.

It should come as no surprise that the other serious challenger for the crown, Deportivo, have also had this aspect well-honed for some time. The veteran Mauro Silva is an elegant player, but is a master of the art of the uncomplicated, anticipating and destroying with ruthless efficiency whilst Sergio, often his (younger) central partner, buzzes around doing much the same thing, but at twice the speed.

The result is that Valerón, still for some observers Spain's best and most subtle player, can do his stuff without having to worry too much about tackling back. No wonder Roy Makaay gets such good service, because his providers can just get on with providing.

Barcelona have had tactical problems all season, not to mention their various troubles off the park, but a major one has been in this department. Though the team has a potentially decent balance in the outer flanks of its midfield (Overmars and Motta/Riquleme), the central positions have been something of a disaster area. Luis Enrique could play there, but he needs to be freed to beef up the attacking options, which leaves Philip Cocu and Xavi - both thoroughly decent players but each one suffering from an identity crisis.

Makelele: New Chelsea deal.
Makelele: New Chelsea deal.

Which is the creator, and which is the killer? In theory, Xavi is the organiser, but he spends too much time trying to be the other. Cocu does the same, but in reverse. The resulting schizophrenia goes a long way to explaining Barça's problems this season.

It's the same everywhere you look. There are plenty of hunting dogs down in the lower reaches of La Liga, and some good ones too - but they have to be complemented in the centre by something more polished. Diego Mateo at Santander is a good 'un, but his partner Ismael is too one-dimensional.

Josico at Villareal plays alone in the centre, and combines the two functions, as does Gonzalo Colsa at Valladolid. But good though these players are, the positions of their teams in the league suggest that it's the pairing that works the best.

Of course, the current king of the four-wheel-drives, Patrick Vieira, has once again appeared in the pages of Marca as a possible target for Real Madrid, given that Makelele might really be on his way. Beckham would sell more shirts, but with Vieira in Madrid's midfield, the sky would truly be the limit.


Phil's book on Real Madrid, White Storm, can be bought via the internet. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.
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