Substituted on Saturday and a member of some of the teams lighter shade of blue performances this season, Mikel has been rumoured to be offloaded this summer following January’s transfer activity and the possible close season restructure. But it is his tactical purpose that can be best questioned.
In 2005 Manchester United unveiled their new signing, an 18 year old Nigerian who was highly regarded after finishing runners-up in the under-20 World Cup, and was second only to Lionel Messi in the player of the tournament award. Yet contrary to United’s claims, Chelsea had already acquired John Obi Mikel’s signature and secured his services after a publicised transfer wrangle.
Six years on with three F.A. Cups and a Premier League title to his collection, John Obi Mikel is integral to the three pronged Chelsea midfield. Replacing the hole vacated by Claude Makelele, he has solidly operated in the unnoticed and unaccredited deep-lying anchor role, a position that is pivotal to the Blues attack and defence.
A powerful figure with an excellent readership of the game, Mikel’s greatest attributes is his ability to maintain possession and his range of passing, an element that we don’t see expressed enough, especially with Ancelotti encouraging the full-backs to roam forward, resulting with Mikel having to cover to such depth he almost becomes a centre back. In addition he is often found supplementing the full-backs advances with sideway passes.
Having a total of seven assists prior to this season is indicative of the reluctance to allow Mikel to advance in attacking positions, yet he has improved drastically as a midfielder since his debut season, committing 28 fouls this season compared to 67 last, and more emphatically having the best pass completion rate of 89% in the Premier league, a stat that makes Mikel appear wasted in the holding role.
The question that Ancelotti faces is how to best utilise John Obi Mikel. Carlo does not necessarily need abandon the role of the defensive midfield position, but focus on enhancing the role for better influence when Chelsea have possession. Arsenal manage to find an extra man in attack by allowing Song to move forward from deeper positions in midfield, and Carlo has previously managed to provide sustenance for his attacks using a deep lying midfielder when at AC Milan, by having Pirlo distribute diagonal balls to the far reaches of the touchline and dictate the tempo of play.
Fans will argue giving Mikel a progressive role would thwart both Essien and Lampard, because he would congest the centre of midfield and his shooting is consistently inaccurate, but having similar positional interchange featured in Ancelotti’s diamond formation last season could prove equally successful if deployed. John Obi has the capabilities of being a formidable central midfielder as proven when playing for Nigeria, not just in a defensive culture but offensive too. But in order to do this he needs to move forward.
Mikel’s time at Stamford Bridge has been a huge learning curve, not least because of dealing with the demands of one of Europe’s biggest clubs, but also plying his trade to a different position he was accustomed to when a youth. Even at international level, he’s adapted to the transition of being a defensive midfielder for his club whilst playing at the tip of the diamond for his country.
Mikel has thus far failed to set the world alight after so much potential and promise. Allowing Mikel to join the attack would help him progress and offer the team extra offensive options, particularly at the Bridge and against weaker opposition. What goes against Mikel is the inability to recapture possession from a luring attack in the essence of Makelele, and his incapability to surge forward and bypass opponents in the same way as Essien.
What he can do is dictate the play and interchange the centre of midfield whilst upholding pressure in the final third of the pitch by stroking the ball around the oppositions’ defence and midfield.