Carlo Ancelotti has this season reinstalled the belief amongst Chelsea fans that Manchester United’s crown can be dislodged. His side lie 4 points clear of Alex Ferguson’s men going into the Christmas break and despite poor results over the last few weeks, have still extended their lead at the top of the table. Both Ancelotti and his side will however be concerned at recent performances as many of Chelsea’s high profile players have been underperforming, none more so than the Nigerian John Obi Mikel.
Mikel began his career playing for the Nigerian side Plateau United and was already playing first team football at the age of 15. After a brief spell in South Africa with Ajax Cape Town, Mikel turned heads with his performances for Nigeria at youth level, most notably in the FIFA Under 20 World Youth Championships, where he won the ‘silver ball’ award after being voted the second best player in the competition. Mikel then entered a well documented and controversial transfer saga involving Chelsea, Manchester United and his current club Lyn Oslo. He eventually signed for Chelsea in June 2006 after the contentious issue was resolved.
In his first two seasons with the west London club, Mikel impressed manager José Mourinho and was eased into the team. He was deployed in a defensive midfield role, learning from the man who defined the position; Claude Makelele. Mikel showed solid development and begun to convince Chelsea fans that he was worth the hassle that his transfer bought the club. With Makelele’s departure at the end of the 2007-08 season, Mikel was given the opportunity to step up to the mantle and define himself within the ‘Makelele role’. However, the Nigerian has been largely disappointing, especially this season and is beginning to receive a fair amount of criticism.
The defensive midfield role has never been more important to Chelsea than this season with the Italian Ancelotti introducing his famous diamond formation to the midfield. It is a role that has alternated between Michael Essien and Mikel yet the two have been a class apart. Essien has staked his claim of being Chelsea’s most valuable player with a drive and power that is unrivalled in the Premier League. He has produced electric displays such as those against Wolves and Arsenal and has been the fulcrum of the Chelsea midfield this season. Mikel however, has been unable to fill the role in Essien’s departure and I believe it is no coincidence that many of the club’s poor results have coincided with the Ghanaian’s absence.
Essien hobbled off in the fixture against Apoel Nicosia after firing Chelsea level with a thunderous 25-yard strike and was replaced by Mikel. Mikel’s performance was typical of what Chelsea fans have seen this season, with the Nigerian looking lacklustre in his defensive midfield role. It is understandable that Mikel does not provide the drive and attacking prowess of Essien, however it is therefore vital for him to exhibit his defensive qualities further yet recent performances have been disappointing. Mikel appears to lethargic and sluggish in the midfield hole and has become prone to lapses of concentration. His error in the final minutes against Apoel was due to his poor positional awareness and although the goal was of little importance, it is not something that Chelsea cannot afford to do often as they chase Premier and Champions League glory.
Mikel has shown that he has natural talent and the potential to compete at the highest level but it is about time that he stood up to be counted at Stamford Bridge. In Essien’s absence he has not performed and it has contributed to Chelsea dropping points. I for one believe that he is sometimes too restricted and would like to see him drive on like he did earlier in his career and like he can often be spotted doing for Nigeria. He has power and although he does not pose much of a goal scoring threat, he is still capable of taking the initiative from the midfield. Either way, Mikel’s recent performances have been unacceptable and he needs to regain his form and fast. The African Cup of Nations will come as a welcome break for Mikel, who will look to impress for Nigeria before returning to Stamford Bridge in February.