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The strange career of John Obi Mikel

Chelsea's John Obi Mikel (right). AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
Roar Rookie
28th August, 2015
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2774 Reads

John Obi Mikel has been at Chelsea since 2006. For comparison, Ashley Cole joined them in the same year. By the laws of football he should either be a Chelsea legend by now, or be plying his trade at a different club.

He has been strongly linked with move away seemingly every season. Besiktas this year, someone else the year before. For somebody that is obviously good enough to be playing regularly, but it is currently bit-part, I have been surprised not to have seen him go.

His skills would be highly appreciated at somewhere like Swansea or even Everton.

He has made just 224 appearances for the Blues in the English Premier League in 10 seasons.

Jon Obi Mikel is the brainchild of the mad scientist that is Jose Mourinho. He was actually born a highly creative and attacking young player. At the FIFA World Youth Championship in the Netherlands 2005, he was going past players, running into the box, threading balls through the defensive line, essentially playing as a Number 10.

Chelsea signed him in 2006 and Mourinho made him a defensive goliath. He recognized that he needed a replacement for ageing Claude Makelele and chose Mikel. He disposed of his attacking traits and instilled discipline and physicality into the young Nigerian. He played occasionally in 2006-07.

Arguably his best season was in 2008-09. He played 32 times in the Premier League during Luis Scolari’s troubled tenure and temporary manager Guus Hiddink’s later renaissance. They won the FA Cup and reached the Champions League final. This was the year that Claude Makelele left the club and Mikel was handed the reigns, the position he had been penciled in for.

Mikel also excelled during Carlo Ancelotti’s tenure. It looked like he would become one of the world’s best defensive midfielders. He played in the anchor role in a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formation, during Chelsea’s title-winning campaign of 2009-10 and the subsequent season where they finished second. Ancelotti was sacked. He notched up 25 and 28 appearances respectively.

The flurry of managers came – Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto di Matteo and Benitez – and his role was diminished. He played while Michael Essien was injured, still not automatically first choice. 22 games in both 2011-12 and 12-13. Chelsea won their first Champions League and Mikel played 120 minutes in the final. Jamie Redknapp rated it as “a performance that I didn’t think he had in him”.

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Now, under the new Mourinho, Mikel has performed a role that I have called Chelsea’s ‘bulletproof vest’. Jose finally got his hands on his finished project. Mikel would be subbed on late into the game for an attacking midfielder like Oscar or Willian in an attempt to shore up the game. Chelsea’s ability to win games 1-0 or 2-1 last season was their trademark.

While he played third fiddle to Matic and Ramires, Mikel’s role was actually quite critical in helping Chelsea keep the three points in the bag, especially in tough away games. He played 18 times in 2014-15.

His career has been bohemian. There’s nobody you can really compare him to. Maybe Shola Amoebi? He must either really love Chelsea, or really love being a substitute player.

Will he retire at Chelsea? Mourinho’s happy to keep paying him. He’s still only 28, he has another 5-6 years left in him. If so he would have ended up staying at Chelsea for about the same length of time as John Terry or Frank Lampard and played half as much.

He’s kind of a quasi-club icon at the moment. He is definitely part of the furniture but I’m sure the fans wouldn’t mind if he left. He’s won two EPL titles, a Europa League, four FA Cups, two League Cups and a Champions League. That’s very impressive. Anybody would be happy with that kind of success and maybe Mikel is.

It’s strange and demented these days to not see a player chase more game time, money or acclaim. But quietly Mikel keeps chipping away. Could he be a content footballer, not motivated by greed?