At 25 and with 250 appearances under his belt you would think that Chelsea fans would have a great level of appreciation for John Obi Mikel. After all this is a player who has won every major honour you could possibly wish to win: one Premier League title, four FA Cups, one League Cup, one Community Shield one not forgetting one rather shiny European Cup (we know what we are). He possesses an impressive ability to regularly put his best performances in on the biggest stage. If you look past Cech’s heroic penalty saving and Drogba’s defining career moment the best player on the pitch in a blue shirt was wearing the number 12.
You could say that statement about any cup final Mikel has played in. Stellar performances against United, Arsenal, Everton, Portsmouth and Liverpool all stand out as amongst his best. He was superb under Hiddink in the Nou Camp, when Chelsea famously blunted the best attacking machine in Europe. Mikel marshalled the midfield incredibly that day and left Iniesta and Xavi perplexed. He did exactly the same under Di Matteo in both the home leg and that extraordinary away game. Fabregas kept in his pocket, like Cazorla and Arteta recently, was a common feature against Arsenal. In fact, you would be hard pressed to think of any top tier attacking midfield talent that has actually got the better of him. Yet because he does not score goals or provide moments of brilliance in the final third he seems to be criminally underrated.
The one constant criticism of Mikel is the speed of his play. I have made the point several times that you can only move the ball as quickly as the movement ahead dictates. In recent seasons we have been a powerful and direct side with very little movement. How can you pass the ball forward quickly if every player is marked or static? The contrast with this season already is apparent. Mikel is carrying the ball more, playing the ball quicker and making more penetrative passes.
This season has been one of real development for Mikel. He is assuming a leadership role on the pitch which suits his demeanour. In a side that is burgeoning with attacking talent you need a calming and solid presence in the middle of the pitch. Mikel has been this and more for seasons, but now we are seeing consistent displays of real quality. A mistake against Juventus aside Mikel has been excellent this season. Fans often feel that his concentration and urgency lets him down against the smaller sides, but perhaps the confidence Di Matteo has installed within him has been the major difference.
Mikel is the type of player and plays the type of role that fans often underestimate and underappreciate. John Terry in an interview on Chelsea TV said that he was Mikel’s biggest fan. Similar plaudits from teammates and managers from Mourinho, Hiddink and Di Matteo should also highlight his importance to the team. Yes, the eye catching talents of Hazard, Oscar and Mata are rightfully grabbing most of the acclaim for their extraordinary play. Could they play with such freedom without someone anchoring the midfield as well as Mikel is at the moment?
Zidane famously quipped about Makélelé, “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” Mikel’s role is often inconspicuous because of the simple nature of much of his work. Intercept the ball, win tackles and play the ball away from danger. He is in fact wrongly criticised for his sideways/backwards passing mentality. A comparison of Mikel versus other similar players from last season shows out of the elite holding midfielders only Song and Lucas played more forward passes than him. This season with both Song and Lucas either departed or injured I would be surprised if Mikel was not the most attack-minded holding player in the league.
The current formation requires one midfielder with the tactical discipline and selflessness to let almost every player ahead of him and even in most instances our full-backs bomb on knowing that he is covering behind them. There are definite improvements to be made here, but they will most certainly come with experience. The best holding midfielders in the world are either in their late 20s or early 30s; it is a role that experience greatly improves. Makélelé after all was over 30 when we signed him and had the ability to read the game like no other. Mikel with another 5 years’ experience under his belt could arguably be the complete holding player.
The fact Mikel is often given the ball in situations of intense pressure seems to be missed by most pundits. This is probably the area of Mikel’s game that has impressed most over the past few months. Using his incredible strength and footwork Mikel will almost in every instance turn away from pressure and continue the passing move. He will get caught occasionally, but considering the amount of times every teammate is willing to give him the ball under intense pressure should really dismiss this lazy Match of the Day criticism. To put things in perspective Mikel has been dispossessed of the ball six times all season. In sixteen games this season statistically he has made two defensive errors which in itself is an incredible feat. “Analysts” would rather concentrate on the fact that he does not play two-touch football at the pace of 1970 Brazil than look at how his teammates treat him as their out ball in possession. He is completely trusted and that should speak volumes.
His partnership with Ramires is one that has blossomed in recent weeks. We cannot forget that the role is entirely new to Ramires and certainly that we are, despite performances, still a team in transition. Their work against Arsenal, Tottenham and how they bossed United until the game became the Clattenburg show should present Chelsea fans with real hope that we have a midfield combination that will come to dominate the league. Both players at 25 are about to enter their peak years playing in a side that realistically only needs a standout centre forward to be devastating. If Mikel is the rock then Ramires is the roll, his lung busting all action style being the perfect foil for Mikel. Who knows? If the club actually try to push Luiz forward into one of the midfield spots, we may just have three perfect midfielders for the formation.
Mikel will never be a goal scorer, he may never (although recent games he is showing it more and more) have the ability of Touré to burst out of midfield with the ball and he may not play 60-yard passes or two-touch football in every instance. What he does offer is a player that has the complete trust of every successful manager the club has had and that of every one of his teammates. He is strong, tactically astute, selfless and maturing into a very fine midfielder. For me he is one of the first names on the team sheet and as long as his confidence continues to grow I want to see him dominating average teams and trying more risky passes.
Makélelé was heralded as “the most important and yet least appreciated midfielder at Real”. We as fans might not always see his worth when compared with more illustrious and attack minded colleagues. Florentino Perez once magnificently claimed Makélelé would “not be missed” and he suffered from a “lack of talent.” That lack of talent seems to have mirrored Madrid’s lack of European Cups since his departure. Funny that. Let us not try to fall into the same trap that Perez spectacularly fell into and ignore the very lazy critique of him by journalists/pundits who generally dislike us.
There’s only one Mikel and I hope it just isn’t me who likes him in a blue shirt.