John Obi Mikel – Balancing The Chelsea Midfield

John Obi Mikel turns 24 today. In his five years at the club he has often divided opinion amongst fans, but there seems to be a slow realisation that Chelsea play better with Mikel in the side than without. In the holding role Mikel is peerless in our squad – and I include Michael Essien in that comparison. Much of the reason the Bison has struggled this season is purely due to the number of times he has operated at the base of the Chelsea midfield. Sometimes having a more offensive minded player in a role does not provide the more offensive option for the team.

When you are judging a holding midfielder you need to look at their ball retention, positioning, tackling, awareness, composure and anticipation/vision. In reality the only thing Mikel lacks is the ability to consistently win headers and pace in isolated areas. These are things you can work around and will more than likely come with experience – Terry has been one of the world’s best centre-backs for years without discernible pace. What people do get frustrated with are his levels of consistency; this is something I tend to agree with. While I believe at times he has had little support from those around him in terms of performance, silly errors will stick in people’s minds. If you make 60 passes out of 62 in a game, it is those two sloppy ones that people will remember: unfortunately that is the nature of the beast.

What cannot be disputed is that Mikel has often been at his best against better opponents. Stand out games in the FA Cup Final against Manchester United, Barcelona at the Nou Camp and repeated games against Arsenal (leaving Fabregas in his pocket) tend to be forgotten by many who like to dig him out. I believe Mikel was arguably one of our best players at the beginning of the season, who knows how well he would have played had others around him not fallen to injury. When a then out of depth Ramires replaced Lampard/Essien, Mikel’s performance noticeably dropped. Nevertheless, recent performances against West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham have highlighted the sort of calm, assertive play that we were sorely missing as recently as our Champions League game versus Manchester United.

Ball Retention/Passing: One of the biggest myths surrounding Mikel is that he slows down play. If you have seen us play recently without him (and with wingers no less!) the speed of our play was criminal. It is no surprise to me that as soon as Mikel returns to the side, some of the pep of seasons gone by returned to our play. The answer is two-fold: (1) it allows Essien (or Ramires) to play ten yards further up the pitch and in return lets Essien play in areas where he hurts teams; (2) Mikel’s presence in the side allows both full-backs and every other forward thinking player to actually push forward.

People seem to focus on his short, sideways passing, but it is exactly this type of ball retention that imbues a side with the confidence to play a more expansive game.  Working as a satellite, continually being available and simply always there to switch the focus of play if necessary is a large part of Mikel’s game.

(The below italicised parts will all have clickable links for your perusal).

Mikel certainly has the Hollywood pass in his locker as evidenced by just three examples on this video clip. However, this pass should only be used if it is on, as it was against Wigan earlier this season. Yet it is his short passing that is often the most important aspect of his play. You can see what a 10 yard pass can achieve.

Mikel’s passing completion over three seasons is near 90% and this wonderful article by Duncan White really does justice to Mikel’s overall improvement.

Positioning/Tackling: Probably Mikel’s biggest improvement this season has been his positional play; you only need to look at the gaps left in the recent United games to see a big Mikel shaped hole in front of the back four. Yes, he will still get caught if someone nippy catches him out wide but he seems to be finding himself in those positions less and less. Compared to his first season at Chelsea his bookings/sendings off record is incomparable. His presence is so welcome that JT famously said he was Mikel’s biggest fan in an interview with the Chelsea and England Captain a while ago.

The first 30 seconds of this clip show a brief cameo of the improvement Mikel has made in his defensive game. He seems to have married his obvious physical gifts with a more developed sense of where he needs to be. Mikel’s ability to hold the ball and maintain possession under intense pressure is unbelievable, but his reading of the play has really put him onto the next level. His play in the Camp Nou was remarkable; in fact this entire clip demonstrates how good he can potentially be.

It is an aspect of play that will continue to improve over time, but the strides forward this season were particularly salient in the early part of this season — his performance against Arsenal in particular was a masterclass in how one should operate in front of the back four.

Composure: When you look at the best holding midfielders over the past 10 years, many of them made their mark in their late 20s or early 30s. Makelele and Pirlo are prime examples of players who really grew into their role and made it their own: one become the battery in the Chelsea Rolex and the other a deep lying playmaker that people like Xabi Alonso now emulate. Mikel, at only 24, has already put in several high profile displays showing composure beyond his years and has 5-6 seasons to really “get” the position. A bold claim, but if he continues to develop as he has done earlier this season he could surpass the pair given the sheer amount of time on his side.

This piece of play against Blackpool and then versus Stoke really sums up what he is capable of as a player.

The Future: I make no bones about rating Mikel very highly. His presence in the team allows others to play their natural game; he is a large part of why our front three no longer look like a separate entity on the park. Ashley Cole once again started to get to the byline against WBA and Birmingham, Malouda played as an actual winger and Frank scored a typical Frank goal for the first time in what seems like forever. It is of no coincidence that Mikel returns and people are found higher up the park. His presence, more importantly, releases Essien who is entirely prohibited in the holding role.

While so much of his game has developed this season, he must concentrate on eradicating the silly errors that sometimes creep into his game. He has all the tools to become some super Pirlolele hybrid. If he can find consistent form he is potentially one of the best in his position in the world. Concentration and just how much Mikel wants to become that player will go a long way in determining just exactly how his Chelsea career pans out. You may not like Mikel, you may not rate Mikel, but like him or not his importance to this Chelsea team is paramount.

(Credit to all the compilation makers for the links).

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