On Wednesday night, John Obi Mikel cost us 2 points and a needed victory against the Italian champions. His second half performance was uncharacteristically very poor, in terms of both his decision making and the execution of his passes. Instead of it being remembered for what it should’ve been – the incredible performance of Oscar dos Santos, making his first appearance in the starting XI – the match left us cursing our inability to preserve a lead and, in this case quite fairly, pointing the figure of blame at Mikel.
In interview after the game, this time very much in character, our #12 took full responsibility for his error and apologised, refusing to make excuses. The issue should’ve been dropped there and then. Disgracefully though, some of the idiotic and bigoted members of our fan base decided to crudely remind us they still exist by sending abusive messages (including some racial remarks) to John’s twitter account, prompting him to close it down Thursday afternoon. It’s a travesty and a huge embarrassment that this happened to one of our players. Criticism and negative judgement (from people that often know very little) is a part of being a being a footballer – to be abused/derided by your own supposed fans however is something no player should be expected to endure.
Personally, when I look back on Mikel’s career at Chelsea, I can’t help feeling slightly sad, given what an exciting prospect he was as an 18 year old. His performances in the 2006 ACON were exceptional and prompted Jay-Jay Okocha to hail him as the best 18-year-old he had ever seen, calling him “a natural talent of the type that rarely emerges now”. Jose Mourinho himself also referred to an 18 year old Mikel as “pure gold” shortly after he joined.
Yet in spite of making his name as an exciting attacking playmaker, Mourinho put him straight in front of the back four and asked him to play a role that’s normally asked of more experienced players and players with a totally different skill set as well. It’s a role that Mikel has always looked frustrated and restricted in, despite adapting well for a young player.
There was one moment last year though that was really horrible for me personally. In our home league game against Liverpool, we conceded the first goal after Mikel had lost possession in the final third after a misguided Cech roll-out. As Liverpool scored, Mikel cut the tragic figure of a man who had finally completed his transformation from an exciting teenage prodigy into a boring and ineffective holding midfielder. As Jonathon Wilson wrote for Sports Illustrated in a review of that match, all the “fun” and excitement seemed to have finally disappeared from Mikel’s game, and he was a poorer player for it.
What happened after that game though was very uplifting (or at least should have been uplifting for all fans) as Mikel had without question his best four months in a Chelsea shirt from February onwards. He was imperious in midfield game after game and was a crucial part of our successful cup campaigns. Indeed in the CL final itself, Mikel was easily Chelsea’s best player over the 90 mins, never once giving the ball away in a packed midfield. To be honest I think he’s had a fairly good start to this season as well. Certainly in Monaco he was the only player I wasn’t embarrassed of on the night.
Sadly for Mikel his job is absolutely thankless. Just as with the referees, if he does it well then he’s invisible, but if he makes a mistake then it’s there for all to see and it’s also often costly. At his best he can run the midfield on his own. He can shrug off any pressure from opponents with his strength and phenomenal close control. His passing is simple but it’s still effective and always a vital part of our build up play. For some reason though people can’t seem to shake this image they maintain of Mikel from years ago of a boring, not especially talented player who does nothing but slow the play down by passing only sideways or backwards. These stats show that to be totally false: http://www.eplindex.co.uk/18194/influence-john-obi-mikel-stats-analysis.html
One question that seems to have been asked a lot on forums around the web and one that really annoys me is: “Why did let go of Essien and keep Mikel?” With the question usually carrying some unsubtle implication that Essien is the better player. My main argument against that would be every single one of Essien’s performances over the last two years. They’ve all been disappointing, and even before his last big injury people were starting to question how much he was contributing to the side. Even if he were to regain his form of 4 years ago, I’d still question if he had (primarily) the fitness required, as well as the leg strength and close control to play the role Mikel does for us. That certainly won’t be his role at Real Madrid, where he’ll probably be nothing more than a utility player or just someone to help pack the midfield in the big matches, like against Man City on Tuesday.
Comparisons between Mikel and Essien are stupid, not only are they very different players but different ages, and with very different form and injury records. Put it all together I don’t see how anyone could consider Essien to be the superior asset for Chelsea at this moment. Letting him go was a smart decision.
One other stupid comparison often made is between Mikel and Claude Makelele. For some reason I’ve never understood, Chelsea fans have always wanted Mikel to take on the Makelele role, as though there was a massive hole in the side left by the Frenchman after he departed in 2008. Don’t get me wrong, I have massive respect for Makelele; that trademark uncomplicated discipline at the back of midfield was a big part of our success under Mourinho, but I wouldn’t call it a “key” part of our success. In my opinion the usurpation of his position by Mikel was a necessary move by the club, with Mikel just being a far more complete midfielder.
I’m prepared to get shot down for this statement now because I feel quite strongly that the contributions of Mikel towards the end of last season did more for the legacy of Chelsea FC than everything Claude Makelele did for us in five years. Purely for the reason I’m sure we would’ve won those league titles under Mourinho with or without Makelele in the squad. If Mikel had been injured however or left out at the end of last season, I can predict quite confidently we wouldn’t have won the Champions League – we probably wouldn’t have even reached the final.
Expecting more from Mikel at this stage of his career is more than reasonable, especially given all the potential he used to show only a few years ago. I’m still waiting for him to step it up personally and reach a level where he can contribute on a weekly basis the way he did towards the end of last season. I’m surely not his biggest fan in the world but it’s time now for Mikel to start receiving more recognition for his contributions – from the Chelsea fan base in particular.