John Obi Mikel (25) moved to English football in 2006 in a storm of controversy - did he sign for Manchester United under duress? Did Chelsea kidnap him? There was also a question surrounding the £16m fee that Chelsea eventually paid - was a teenager playing in the Norwegian league worth this much? In more recent times the question has been re-ignited, was he worth all the effort, and does he have the quality to play at a club like Chelsea?
There has always been a niggling criticism of Mikel, suggestions that his passing was restricted to simple sideways passes, and never anything more adventurous. There were also suggestions that his mobility was inadequate, and that he was both clumsy and excessively aggressive, which was supported by the four red cards he received in his first two seasons at Chelsea. His behaviour early in his Chelsea career was less than professional; he was regularly late for training, and his attitude was questioned. He was eventually dropped for over a month during his first season.
Recently criticism has reached a peak; this is due to his performance in the 2-2 draw against Juventus in the Champions League. Mikel was sloppy with possession late in the game and gave the ball away in his own half, not a cardinal sin by any means, but his lack of desire to track back and atone for his misplaced pass was not well received by supporters or football analysts, who all condemned his sluggishness. This act was for many the final straw; there have been murmurings amongst supporters that Mikel is not at the level that Chelsea need, there is a frustration surrounding his passing, which for many is too often negative and unadventurous, and suggestions that he slows the tempo with his ponderous play.
Just how justified is this criticism though? Di Matteo immediately jumped to his defence, commenting that "I don’t know why he’s underrated by the fans — he’s very rated by us in the group." While the praise is virtually inevitable coming from his manager his actions in starting Mikel in all but two of Chelsea’s games so far this season suggest that RDM sees him as a vital piece of the puzzle.
Statistically Mikel is an impressive performer, with a pass success rate of 90.5% in his six league appearances he is within the top 25 players and amongst the top 10 midfielders in the league. With more than 300 successful passes made there are only 4 players who have made more passes while retaining at least a 90% success rate; Arteta, Cazorla, Scholes and Joe Allen, an illustrious group of talented passers. These passing stats are impressive, and made more so by the fact that he has only been dispossessed 0.7 times a game, or four times in six games. This places him within the top 20 midfielders in the league for holding on to the ball, a group that includes the likes of Scholes, Gerrard and Lampard. Looking at both of these statistics there is only one midfielder in the league more likely to hold on to the ball, and ensure it's safe delivery to a team mate than John Obi Mikel, and that is Paul Scholes, a midfielder Zidane once called the best player he has ever played against.
Now I am not attempting to say that Mikel is the second best midfielder in the league, that would be a bold, and potentially absurd declaration, I am simply attempting to highlight why Mikel is so important to Chelsea. When Jose brought Mikel to the club many suggested that he would be the answer to the question, "who will replace Makélelé "?
Claude Makélelé was allowed to leave Real Madrid and join Chelsea in 2003, a move that the club president Florentino Pérez infamously commented on by pouring scorn on Makélelé's footballing abilities and proclaimed that Makélelé would not be missed: "His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety per cent 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." This comment was immediately leapt upon by the great and the good of the footballing world; Zidane called Makélelé the "entire engine" of the team, while the captain Hierro commented that "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." Makélelé became an integral part of the new look Chelsea squad helping Jose Mourinho's team to numerous titles and trophies and in September 2005, he was selected as a member of the World XI at the FIFPro awards, an accolade richly deserved for his contribution to a hugely successful squad.
Replacing Makélelé was always going to be a monumental task, he was a player who for so long defined the role he played, so much so that people began referring to the position as "the Makélelé role". I believe it is now slightly ironic that a player (Mikel) who was brought in to distribute the ball cleanly and effectively while disrupting the opposition’s attacks, in the same way Makélelé used to do, is being criticised by many for the same reasons that Perez cited when he moronically criticised Makélelé. The current Chelsea squad displays some of the world’s best attacking players, and much like the Galacticos of Zidane and Figo it needs a player to be the "engine" of the team, someone who can keep hold of the ball and move it calmly and effectively, while offering a dominant physical presence in the middle of the pitch.
Again I find myself comparing Mikel to one of the greatest midfielders of all time, and again I do not intend to say that Mikel is as effective as Makélelé, but I do believe that in comparing him to his predecessor we are able to gain perspective about the role Mikel is attempting to perform, and the duties of that role. In concluding this piece I am caught in two minds, on the one hand it would be simple to condemn all of those lazy critics who think that goals and assists are all that define a player, and that as a result Mikel is not up to scratch, but on the other hand I am conscious that despite all of the positives that Mikel's game brings to Chelsea he does have flaws that prevent him from being considered as one of the most effective midfielders in world football. While his distribution is clean and generally crisp he can often linger for too long on the ball, slowing the pace of the game and preventing Chelsea building quick breaks. Mikel can also be clumsy in the tackle, and overly physical, and while he has improved this area of his game drastically since his arrival into the Premier League, it could still improve. As a final thought I will suggest that the world’s best teams all have a player who "does the dirty work" (as RDM said of Mikel), Barcelona and Spain have Busquets, Juventus have Vidal, Manchester City have Toure, Garcia or Rodwell, Bayern have Gustavo and Chelsea have John Obi Mikel.