John Obi Mikel is one of the Premier League’s most under-rated players in the last decade. Affectionately known as the ‘human final whistle’ by sectors of the Chelsea fan base, the Nigerian international arrived in the English game amidst great controversy with Manchester United and Chelsea forced into a messy deal that saw him end up at Stamford Bridge.
Initial hopes of a box-to-box, goal-scoring midfielder to play alongside Frank Lampard quickly fizzled under Jose Mourinho. Mikel’s towering physique saw him become typecast into an anchor man role, as a successor to Claude Makelele rather than a marauding attacking player that he later played for Nigeria in African Cup of Nations success.
His lack of mobility was believed to be the issue as Mourinho regularly used Mikel late in games to tie up a minimal lead and sit in front of the defence. A trusted member of the squad even from a young age, Mikel’s development was harmed by his importance to Chelsea. Needed as a functional squad member from the off rather than allowed to flourish into a more complete player, Mikel’s future was set in stone at Chelsea early on.
He turns 30 today and finds himself caught up in the riches of the Chinese Super League. A Champions League winner, a Europa League winner and holder of multiple Premier League and FA Cup medals, Mikel was a stalwart in multiple Chelsea successes just like Ashley Cole, Lampard, Didier Drogba, Petr Cech and John Terry.
Despite making well over 350 appearances for the west London club, however, he was always labelled as a player on the cusp of being casted aside. Almost always on the fringes of a star-studded squad, Mikel still remained. Partly because he did not force a move elsewhere, but also as a result of managers knowing the value in having such a vastly experienced, trustworthy holding midfielder.
What he became was a defensive supersub. The antithesis of Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer, Mikel was the substitute turned to when his side held the lead and wanted to declare the match over. He locked up the midfield. It might not have been the glamorous Lampard-esque career some had envisaged for him, but it prolonged his relevance at the pinnacle of the sport. His move to China, in fact, came a few years too soon for a player who could still do a very efficient job in the Premier League.
Unfortunately for Mikel, as he edged towards his peak years the game was changing. Spanish-influenced possession football was in vogue, which relied heavily on high pressing and technical ability from the deepest midfielder. A response to the Barcelona style of play was the intense counter-pressing that has become commonplace in English football. Mikel – whose passing was never going to catch the eye – was not suited to the possession-dominant style, nor did he have the engine or acceleration to flourish in a pressing team.
The anchor man was drifting out of the thoughts of top level teams. Mikel, with it, was becoming an anachronism – a player out of place in a starting lineup. His career will be forgotten by many, but his role in Chelsea’s Champions League success particularly cannot be undervalued.
John-Obi Mikel was a class act, just in a role that was disappearing out of the consciousness of the elite clubs.