Ten years have passed since one of the most dramatic transfer sagas in football.
John Obi Mikel, then an 18-year-old star in the making, was the main protagonist. Manchester United were reportedly set to sign the Nigerian youngster from Lyn Oslo in the summer of 2005. That began a year-long saga involving tales of agreements made without consent, rival clubs, Chelsea in this case, “kidnappings” and, finally, a year later, resolution. The inner details of the saga are quite intriguing and could even make for a small movie. That is of much less importance than where we are today in Mikel’s journey though.
Mikel, now 28, has played his entire senior career with Chelsea. Whether or not that was the right decision remains to be seen.
The Nigerian midfielder has a trophy haul that is surely the envy of many of his colleagues. Yet, some would venture to wonder how he even got such accolades at all. He has, after all, never been the standout player for any successful Chelsea side. He has been efficient and generally solid when called upon but never more than a squad man. Or maybe this is a common misconception given that in Jose Mourinho’s most recent stint in charge you almost forgot he played for the Blues.
Mikel has played for Chelsea over 350 times so he must have done something right. In his almost 10 years at the club he has become almost as much a part of the tapestry as the homegrown John Terry, and is the second longest-serving player in the side. He’ll have the number one spot when Terry leaves this summer. Third-string goalkeeper Jamal Blackman, also homegrown, has been around as long as Mikel but only ever entered the first-team setup in 2012.
Still, Mikel’s recent comments about life under second-time interim manager, Guus Hiddink, speaks volumes. He hasn’t felt part of the team in the last few seasons and being trusted by the Dutch manager has lifted his confidence. Indeed, it has been a surprise to see him constantly in the lineup nowadays. Which is strange considering his high number of appearances suggest he was, more often than not, a regular.
The numerous trophies garnered during his time at the club detracts from one important question, though. Would Mikel have been a different player, a better player, had he signed for Manchester United?
Before “Mikel-gate” he was regarded as an extremely talented attacking midfielder. Incisive passes, quality service from crossing and some nifty dribbling were in his arsenal. His level of play was such that he was acknowledged as the second best player at the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup. The first? A fellow named Lionel Messi. Fans of the Super Eagles were hopeful the nation found a new talisman to replace the departing Jay-Jay Okocha. The news that two big name clubs were interested in his services would only have heightened that optimism. If only. What we now see at Chelsea, in the moments he’s been on the pitch is a very bland defensive midfielder.
Mikel does the simple things well and has been used by Hiddink to add, as the Dutch coach says, some balance to the side. Simple passes are the norm, assists are rare, goals even rarer, tackles are crucial and positional discipline is essential. Mikel does produce more adventurous passing at times but that’s as creative as it gets for the Nigerian. He is capable of so much more.
The Chelsea squad he joined in 2006 already had attacking talents such as Frank Lampard and Joe Cole. The likes of Michael Ballack and Michael Essien could fill box-to-box roles. Who did Jose Mourinho decide was to be young Mikel’s mentor? Claude Makelele. The Frenchman was the world’s best defensive midfielder at the time and Mourinho presumably saw Mikel as his heir.
Though Mourinho left a season after, none of the seven managers to arrive since his departure saw fit to use Mikel elsewhere, including Hiddink. It seemed a different path would’ve been in store for Mikel at Manchester United.
The Red Devils were in need of, and arguably still need, a replacement for Paul Scholes. Mikel showcased the requisite attributes to fulfil that role. Michael Carrick had arrived in 2006 to replace Roy Keane in defensive midfield while Owen Hargreaves arrival in the next season. That meant Mikel would have been used elsewhere. The arrival of Brazilian boy wonder, Anderson, in 2007 may have prompted some competition but Mikel would have had a head start.
In hindsight, Mikel could very well have blossomed into Paul Pogba, before Paul Pogba. He had the physical tools and the necessary skill but never received the direction.
Nigerian fans are treated to glimpses of the creative Mikel when he plays for the Super Eagles. He is unshackled from his Chelsea duties and performs the role of creator-in-chief for his nation. His recent performances at the 2013, African Cup of Nations, 2013 Confederations Cup and 2014 World Cup provided further evidence of a talent mismanaged. His well-taken goal against Uruguay in the Confederations Cup both delights and saddens as it reveals just what Mikel could be capable of. His 73 caps show just how important he is to his country.
Only Mikel will know if regrets ending up in London.
Eleven trophies in almost 10 seasons represents great success. Manchester United picked up 14 in the same period. The 28-year-old defensive midfielder is now in his prime and at somewhat of a crossroads. He could wait and see what his role is with Chelsea’s new manager. Or, he could venture out and hopefully find a new lease on life with a chance to express himself fully.
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