Behind John Terry, John Obi Mikel is the 2nd-longest serving player currently in the Chelsea squad. It’s surprising to believe that Mikel has been at The Bridge since the summer of 2006, after signing from Norwegian club Lyn. The Nigerian international, now 29 years old, has not only matured significantly in his 10 years at the club, but has developed the central defensive midfielder role into one of his own.
372 games, a Champions League winners medal, two Premier League titles, four FA Cups and a Europa League winners medal later and Mikel could be about to enter his most important season yet for Chelsea. With Antonio Conte now at the helm, the Nigerian international will need to prove to his new boss that he is ready to become the main anchor of the Chelsea midfield, but what are his chances of succeeding in his attempt?
Despite the glowing statistics from his time at Chelsea so far, Mikel has always endured his fair share of criticism from fans and pundits throughout the media. Almost instantly after joining, there were doubts over his attitude and lifestyle outside of football. He took his time to settle into the intense environment of a Premier League team. With allegations circulating about Mikel’s behaviour and punctuality, it wasn’t until November 2006 that the Nigerian international got a a consistent run of first team action under his belt.
Despite all the rumours, there was no questioning his natural footballing ability. He was able to breakthrough into a Chelsea first team that had Claude Makelele, Michael Ballack and Michael Essien all vying for a place in defensive midfield. Jose Mourinho had quite the midfield at his dispense, but still handed Mikel 41 appearances in his debut season.
Standing at 6 ft 2, Mikel has a gangly frame which enables him to snuff out the opponents attacks with a mixture of interceptions and sharp sliding tackles. It was this particular feature that Mourinho saw as key to help utilise his game plan. Still at a young age however, Mikel was adjusting the English game in more ways than one. On the pitch, his disciplinary record was far from perfect. In his first season alone, he picked up nine yellows and two red cards, and although he has only picked up another two red cards in the following seven seasons, to date, he still continuously receives an abundance of yellows.
This was one of the reasons Mikel found himself being scrutinised by pundits early on in his Chelsea career. By the time the 2008-09 season had finished, however, he found himself nominated for player and young player of the season. It signalled a remarkable transformation in form for the midfielder, who thanks to the sale of Claude Makelele and a long-term injury to Michael Essien, found himself excelling in the CDM role.
What was nearly a perfect season, was somewhat marred by a drink driving incident which occurred just hours before Chelsea’s FA Cup tie with Ipswich Town. It acted as a reminder to the other side of John Obi Mikel, who at 21 years of age, was still very raw and naive. Thankfully for him Chelsea saw past this and rewarded him with a new five-year deal in July 2009.
Finally, the fans at Chelsea and many pundits had started to accept Mikel and his footballing style for what it actually was. It wasn’t filled with thrills and goals. He was undoubtedly a player who mucked in and tried to make life easier for his teammates. His distribution helped keep things ticking along, and whilst he wouldn’t receive many plaudits for scoring or creating goals, he was happy to take a back seat and let the likes of Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Nicolas Anelka bask in the limelight. Slowly but surely people were starting to realise the potential and the value Mikel had in this Chelsea team, and much was expected during his years to come.
In the following seasons Mikel and Chelsea won numerous titles, with a number of different managers and achieved great amounts of success. Mikel’s games and performances, however, didn’t necessarily improve. He continued to make the same mistakes which drew criticism early on in his career. As a result, he became a bit-part player during the 2014/15 season, making just 26 appearances in all competitions.
Jose Mourinho, back for his second spell in charge of Chelsea, didn’t feel Mikel had the same impact on the team’s play, that he did first time round. It wasn’t until the Portuguese head coach’s departure midway through the 2015/16 season that saw the reintroduction of Mikel to the first team – and he seemingly took his opportunity. Guus Hiddink was placed in temporary charge until the end of the season, and one of his instant changes to the depleted and underwhelming Chelsea team was to bring back the Nigerian midfielder.
Mikel was inserted into the team and sure enough he found his mojo again. He not only provided the stability and security that Chelsea needed, after shipping goals for fun in the first half of the campaign, but his presence allowed Cesc Fabregas to control matches. Fabregas, much like most of the Chelsea squad, had endured a difficult start to the season. Once Mikel was placed in the defensive midfield role, he brought the discipline whilst his Spanish team-mate provided the creativity.
The Chelsea fans recognised the impact Mikel had upon his return, and for the first time in his Chelsea career, they gave him his own chant. The nearly forgotten man had finally emerged into the limelight. After a solid personal end to the season, Mikel would have been confident that a first team place in the upcoming 2016/17 season would be his for the taking. Antonio Conte, however, appears to have different ideas.
With the signing of N’Golo Kante, who enjoyed a superb title winning season with Leicester City, it seems that Mikel will once again be squad player, rather than a crucial first team member. He has become part of the furniture at Chelsea over the years, very much like a living room beanbag. You may struggle to get the best use out of it sometimes, but every now and then you’ll give it a shake and find its true worth. Now 29 years old and with plenty of experience and appearances under his belt, you could see why John Obi Mikel would want to play regular first team football. Sadly though, it doesn’t look like his opportunity will ever arrive at Stamford Bridge.
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