As Chelsea prepare for the visit of Aston Villa this weekend, the chances are that their very own Mr. Consistency, in Nigerian midfielder John Obi Mikel, will turn out to make his 24th appearance of the season. And if he does, then the Nigerian will be able to celebrate something of a mini-milestone.
An outing against Paul Lambert’s men will see the former Lyn Oslo prodigy rack up his 175th Premier League appearance. Indeed, since his controversial switch to the Blues in 2006, Mikel has racked up a staggering 262 showings in all competitions. It’s worth noting that he’s still only 25 years of age.
For some, that may or may not come as something of a surprise. While the consistency of the Nigerian’s performances have never been in doubt, many have often been left somewhat undecided on the ultimate influence of those performances.
The nature of his defensive destroyer like role ensures he’s hardly likely to grab many headlines. A return of two goals – both of which came in the FA Cup during his first season in English football – suggests he does what he says on the tin and not much more. Considering that’s seen him anchor his team to Premier League, domestic cup and Champions League glory, you’d have to suggest he must execute his job as good as anyone in this league.
Yet despite his sizeable medal haul since arriving at Stamford Bridge and the generally prominent role that he’s played in attaining such silverware, it’s not often you’ll hear Mikel pop up in anyone’s top five Premier League midfielders. While success has been a perennial figure in the Nigerian’s Chelsea career, plaudits haven’t been quite such a regular feature.
So why is this? Is it simply his role within the side that ensures that he remains something of an unsung hero? Or is he really the passenger like figure that so many seem to portray him as?
While Mikel is yet to have won all over the neutrals, there can’t be any arguments as to how highly the managerial contingent appear to rate his contribution to the side. Since Jose Mourinho – the man who first ushered Mikel into the side – departed the club in 2007, Mikel has gone on to play under a staggering seven different bosses. And out of that colourful selection of different bosses, it’s perhaps only been the short tenure of Andre Villas-Boas that saw the Nigerian fall out of favour.
From Scolari to Hiddink or Ancelotti to Di Matteo, Mikel has consistently been a part of first team affairs no matter who’s been in charge or what their philosophy has dictated. While his Chelsea career has encompassed the odd spell when he’s floated in and out of the side, it’s never tended to be for much more than the odd tactical tweak. You would have thought if he truly carried the flaws that some of his most persistent critics seem to preach about, he would have been flogged by one of the past seven managers by now.
And amongst many of those criticisms, it’s Mikel’s failure to impose himself upon games or his lack of a real standout attribute that seems to crop up more frequently than anything else.
The term jack-of-all-trades and master of none can often be batted his way all too unfairly yet in some respects, that isn’t an entirely misleading sentiment. He doesn’t have the bone-crunching tackles of a Cheick Tiote, the heel snapping tenacity of a Scott Parker or the on pitch nous of a Gareth Barry.
It’s said that if a defensive midfielders name feature too prominently in commentary, then the chances are he’s having a half decent game. Yet such is the simplicity that drapes itself around the way Mikel goes about business, it’s often easy to mistake the subtlety of his role for ineffectiveness.
But this season, Mikel’s been as effective defensively as any of his other Stamford Bridge teammates. With 25 to his name, Mikel’s made more interceptions than anyone else at the club this term, with only Ashley Cole and the effervescent Ramires averaging more tackles per game.
Not only has Mikel made more passes than anyone else in Rafa Benitez’s side, only John Terry has a higher average pass completion rate. Many of them may well have been shorter, five, ten yard passes, but when it comes to the accuracy of his longer, more ambitious passes, only David Luiz has hit them more frequently and accurately out of Chelsea’s outfield contingent. Out of all the critique that can be directed at Mikel, being a passenger certainly isn’t one of them.
Yet for all his workings as an important cog in this Chelsea team, as effective as his output may well be, that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t room for improvement in the position.
Because in recent years, the role of the destroyer, the man sent specifically to negate without need to possess any creative influence, has slowly began to regress in itself. From Manchester United to Barcelona, increasingly we’re seeing holding midfield units that initiate attacks, as well as break them up. While most sides will bestow a deep-lying playmaker, the accompanying holding midfielder tends to do a lot more than just plant a tackle and pass the ball five yards.
And while you can use statistics to paint whatever Mikel based picture you want, you can’t quantify his speed of thought, the effectiveness of those completed passes and the effect that has upon the rest of the team. Does he slow down the general tempo of Chelsea’s play? Are his defensive gifts unrivalled enough to allow for an abject lack of attacking contribution? Bar Celtic and Galatasaray, would he even get into the team in any of the sides in the Champions Legaue last 16?
What’s most important is of course the value Mikel holds to Chelsea, rather than anyone else. But the lack of glamour in his role doesn’t hold him exempt from critique. Mikel may not currently need to worry about the weaker sides of his game. But in the long run, it could serve him well to look to improvement.