Chelsea FC: The Curious Case Of John Obi Mikel

With 182 league games with no goals and an unflattering record of assists that can still be counted with two hands, John Obi Mikel is probably one of the most divisive players in Chelsea Football Club right now. His critics point out that he is a slow, uncreative and a waste of space. His supporters, on the other hand, praise his defensive discipline and selflessness to the team.

For 8 years now, John Obi Mikel is part of a select crop of players who have remained in the first team despite the ever changing number of managers that enter through the club’s revolving doors. In all of those 8 years, the Nigerian featured heavily in the club’s ventures and has managed to find a place for himself in every manager’s game plan, much to the delight or derision of Chelsea supporters worldwide. Now in 2013, Mikel is once again back at full circle, under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho, the man who brought the Nigerian to the club in the first place. However, news of an impending departure of the Nigerian from the club have been dominating headlines in recent weeks.

“I have a four-year contract with Chelsea, but you know, in football you can never guess, one day you are here, the next day you might leave,” said Mikel as he told Sky Sports most recently.

This quote perhaps shows the Nigerian’s uncertainty with his future under Mourinho or a lingering though of moving to pastures anew.

It is hard to imagine why Mikel would reject further English premiership glory for a move to Turkish side Galatasaray, one of the front runners in the chase for his signature. After all, Mikel was a Mourinho buy, a player which the Portuguese went to great lengths to attain. Nevertheless, it is certain that Chelsea will be making a huge mistake letting the 26 year old midfielder go.

Mikel’s current struggle in winning fans over draws stark comparisons with that of Claude Makélelé Sinda, his mentor and perhaps one of the greatest defensive midfielders. Makélelé made his name at Chelsea and at Real Madrid, and was known for the genesis of the “Makélelé” role, where a player effectively forms a screen of defence covering the back four, while contributing forward by recycling possession as a deep lying playmaker.

Makélelé’s talent as a holding midfielder was evident throughout his career; his teammates could venture forward knowing he was ever present to cover them. His role was what many called the ultimate act of selflessness, putting his personal glory aside for the task of defending. Makélelé was always recognized as a crucial player to his teammates, but that appreciation rarely translated over to fans. It is not hard to see why.

The allure of goal scorers holds sway over the eyes of supporters. It is no secret that attacking players draw more attention than defensive players. “Goals win games” as they would always say, and the goal scorer takes most of the credit. Such infatuation over attackers is understandable. After all, humans, are all drawn to the things that stand out. An attackers stands out because of his stunning shots and exciting dribbling. An attacker stands out because he is making a tangible difference with his goals and assists. To the masses, unentertaining players like Makélelé perform the banal task of retrieving the ball before passing possession off to others because they seemingly lack the talent to score or create goals themselves.

Such prejudice was why Makélelé, despite being one of the best players in the Real Madrid team, was one of the least paid. The fact that the French star played 3 years uncomplainingly with wages dwarfed by his Galatico teammates was astounding. The fact that he only sought an improved contract after winning the UEFA Champions league and 2 La Ligas was representative of his humility as a player and a person. This was made even more admirable, given that his decision to get a new contract was also made largely from encouragement by his fellow teammates. His attitude and professionalism shines over the ludicrous transfer debacles that have happened in recent years, where players hold clubs hostages with wage demands. In Makélelé’s case, the result of his contract request as many would know, would be one of Florentino Perez’s (Real Madrid’s club president) most scornful and foolish remarks.

“We will not miss Makélelé. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélelé to be forgotten.”

Florentino Perez’s comments at that time was not wrong, in fact it was reflective of what most fans thought at the time. His quote revealed the lack of understanding and confirmed the lack of knowledge with which fans (himself included) regarded players like Makélelé. In fact, Zinedine Zidane who was so disappointed with the decision to let Makélelé go said that letting Makélelé go and buying David Beckham as his replacement was like adding another layer of gold on Bentley, while losing the entire engine.

Makélelé left Madrid after Perez’s decision to not give him an improved contract, and went to Chelsea to join up with Claudio Ranieri, a man who knew what the French man could provide to the team. In the next five years to follow, Makélelé showed the world what being a holding midfielder was all about. Makélelé was the engine is the Chelsea midfield, in fact, at times, it seemed as if just the player’s presence was enough to guarantee a win. Opposition managers also took notice of Chelsea’s reliance on Makélelé, with Chris Coleman in 2006 (Fulham manager at the time) famously explaining how he identified shutting Makélelé down as the sole way to beat Chelsea. By making sure his players pressed the French man when he was in possession, while bypassing him using wingers in attack, he managed a 1-0 win over then Chelsea Manager Jose Mourinho.

In that match, Coleman managed to open eyes of many to the Makélelé ‘s critical role as the side’s deep lying playmaker and screener. However, such acclaim was already long overdue. Further recognition of Makélelé’s talents also came from Steve McManaman, who criticized Perez for letting Makélelé go in his biography.

“I think Claude has this kind of gift – he’s been the best player in the team for years but people just don’t notice him, don’t notice what he does. But you ask anyone at Real Madrid during the years we were talking about and they will tell you he was the best player at Real. We all knew, the players all knew he was the most important. The loss of Makélelé was the beginning of the end for Los Galacticos and you can see that it was also the beginning of a new dawn for Chelsea. He was the base, the key and I think he is the same to Chelsea now.”

Now we look to John Obi Mikel, who now continues Makélelé’s legacy at Chelsea Football Club.

Mikel’s story however, was markedly different in some areas to that of Makélelé. In fact, he played as an attacking midfielder in his youth. He also made his name in the FIFA World Youth Championships as an attacking midfielder, emerging as the second best youth player (silver ball awardee) in the world, only behind Lionel Messi from Argentina. With clubs all over the world vying for his signature, it was clear that either Chelsea or Manchester United would be the winners. After a complicated transfer process where legal hurdles were also crossed, Mikel finally made his move to Chelsea.

However, Mikel’s initial progress at the club was marred by disciplinary problems. Despite the laidback demeanor we have grown to see both on and off pitch, Mikel was known for his poor attitude with regards to training. He was fined for turning up late for trainings repeatedly and was known to be a constant in the London nightlife. At a point of time, he was even benched for a month because of his poor attitude. Mikel, however, improved his discipline and professionalism over the years.

Alongside with his changing attitude, Mikel also underwent a change in his play style. While he scored 2 goals in his first season at the club (Both came in FA cup games) and contributed significant assists, Jose Mourinho began seeing something else within the Nigerian starlet. While Mikel may have been trained in the arts of an attacking midfielder, he showed glimpses of potential for holding midfield when he deputized for Makélelé. Mikel was strong on the ball and had a great awareness of the game around him, giving him the uncanny ability to break down plays and contribute to them with his excellent range of short passing.

Mourinho’s move to play Mikel in a new defensive position drew the contempt of Nigeria’s fans though, many of whom had believed that Mikel would have been Nigeria’s next attacking midfield star. Nonetheless, Mourinho was a visionary who saw beyond the eyes of others, he knew that Mikel would have struggled for game time in a position which was heavily contested by better players such as Frank Lampard and Joe Cole. Mikel’s innate affinity for the deep lying playmaker role like Makélelé would see the club rewarded with a player who could carry on Makélelé’s legacy and possibly become the next best holding midfielder in the world.

Unfortunately, Mourinho left the club, before he could see that vision come true. As new managers came and went, many still preferred to play Mikel as a holding midfielder. But it was undeniable that Mikel’s growth had stalled with the influx of many managers who played him in different ways. Nevertheless, the club stuck with Mikel and never bought another holding midfielder until Oriol Romeu, the Barcelona starlet who was Andre Villas Boas’s answer to Mikel, arrived. Thankfully for Mikel, Romeu’s injury problems and eventual poor form that saw the Nigerian retain his spot in team. However, Romeu’s arrival also signaled a changing opinion of Mikel among the Chelsea fans. Many were impressed with Romeu’s unique approach to his holding midfield role, a complete 180 degree turn from Mikel. Those opinions gradually saw the Nigerian relegated further behind in stature by fans.

The reason for such disparity was Romeu’s La Masia schooled play style. While Mikel was tutored in a style that was similar to Makélelé, Romeu’s forward thinking play honed at Barcelona centered on a ball playing deep lying midfielder who ventured and passed forward more. On the pitch, it was more attractive and seemingly effective than Mikel’s. Hence, fans were quick to criticize Mikel, a player which they saw as more cumbersome over the years, pointing to Romeu as the type of defensive midfielder that Chelsea truly needed, one that could create from central midfield much like Xabi Alonso or Andrea Pirlo. Unfortunately, what they did not see was Mikel’s overwhelming importance in defensive areas of the pitch.

Much like Makélelé, Mikel selflessly performed the task of a holding midfielder. His job was simple yet undoubtedly effective, recycle possession to the attacking midfielders and screen the defence when others attack. He could not go forward at all. Mikel rarely took a shot, and rarely ventured forward so that he could concentrate on defending. That was the role which he played to aplomb for years. Yet critics increasingly and continually disparaged his apparent shortcomings.

However, they would soon be proven wrong by the man himself.

After the firing of Andre Villas Boas, Chelsea miraculously made it through to the Champions League knockout stages under the guidance of Robert Di Matteo. Under Di Matteo, Mikel was once again reinstated to the first team, and gave perhaps the best performances of his life against the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich on their road to winning the Champions league.

In the contentious second leg of the Barcelona semifinal encounter, on the back of a solid performance in their 1-0 win earlier, Mikel single handedly shut down the Barcelona midfield. For 90 minutes, the Nigerian showed determination, stamina and speed that were once thought to have been nonexistent in his game. In defence, Mikel pressed up field against Barcelona midfielder Xavi, who was eventually unable to pull the strings due to Mikel’s constant harassing. Furthermore, the Nigerian was tireless in double marking Lionel Messi, while breaking down through balls from the Barcelona midfield. In attack, Mikel kept things simple as ever, laying of the ball to midfielders like Ramires and Lampard before man marking Lionel Messi, denying the Argentinian space to ply his skill as a false nine from deeper midfield. Chelsea emerged with a 2-2 draw and winners on aggregate, moving to a much stronger challenge against Bayern Munich.

In Munich, Mikel once again produced the same virtuoso performance, harassing the midfielders relentlessly in defence while denying Thomas Mueller space to strive. Mikel was hailed by Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp as playing an excellent game by putting in “a performance that I didn’t think he had in him; he was putting out fires everywhere,” A long overdue compliment that he should have gotten years ago. Like Makélelé, Mikel had finally showed his worth, yet his battle to win over the masses continues on.

The key difference between the two is that Makélelé was brought up as a defensive midfielder, while Mikel hails from a different background. Till this day, little is known about the Mikel’s thoughts on his transition from attacking midfield to defensive midfield. While Mikel has publicly stated before that he does not hate doing a defensive job, one might wonder whether his recent ambiguous statement regarding his Chelsea future is a call from a player who yearns to return to attacking midfield in the prime years of his footballing life. After all, for Nigeria, Mikel has always been played as a more attacking midfield player, contrary to his role in Chelsea. While Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez have been instrumental in demanding more from Mikel in terms of attacking contributions (evident from Mikel’s more ambitious passes and recent seasons and forays forward), but Mikel may never get a chance to fully exert himself in attack with the likes of Eden Hazard and Juan Mata playing in attack.

Looking at another angle, a more plausible reason would be that Mikel feels that a move elsewhere would be necessary for him to shine in another limelight, like Makélelé. Makélelé eventually received acclaim for his play style at Chelsea. Perhaps Mikel feels that 8 years doing a role that has earned him derision and ridicule at Chelsea is more than enough for him.

As Chelsea fans await with dread or anticipation for his departure, it is safe to say that the impact of Mikel’s departure would be one most keenly felt by his teammates. For fans who rejoice at the departure of “Chelsea’s most boring midfielder”, it is important for them to note that regardless of their personal opinion of him, respect must still be shone for his act of great personal sacrifice as player.

After all, Mikel was a player who gave up potential glory and fame in an attacking midfield role to contribute to the team as a holding midfielder. He could have easily left for greener pastures elsewhere but he stayed for the betterment of the team. Through his decision, he made history by winning the Champions league, even when his contributions in defence went largely unrecognized by the outstanding performances of striker Didier Drogba.

I for one would hate to see the club let Mikel go. He is a player who gave his all for the club. A player, who like his mentor Makélelé, embodied the true meaning of self-sacrifice on the football pitch.

 Featured Image via Ben Sutherland

Written by Dinesh V

Co-founder of Soccersouls. Living a start-up life 24/7
Follow @dineshintwit

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