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John Mikel Obi, the keystone


SeB
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If you stopped watching football in 2007 and you've just started to watch again, one of the biggest surprises you can have is really to see how John Obi Mikel did dramatically improve since you left. Initially signed in a controversial move from Lyn Oslo, Mikel did not start his career in English Football under the best omens. He did not waited to show an overflow of aggressivity as well as a lack of composure (and a questionnable attitude at training) though he was brooded by the illustrious Claude Makélélé. At that point, Mikel was a promising player (2nd best player of the 2006 FIFA World Youth Championships) parsimoniously used by José Mourinho and Avram Grant at several roles in the midfield, without having a key role he couldn't afford yet.

Mikel's Chelsea career will turn a decisive corner when Michael Essien got gravely injured on the 5th of September 2008. So then, John Obi Mikel got pushed to a starting role in front of the defense by Brazilian manager Luis Felipe Scolari after being a part time player of the squad for the two previous seasons, quite often as an incoming susbtitute in Premier League. This arrival under the spotlight - comparable to the one brazilian dynamo Ramires experienced after Frank Lampard's injury last season - had a massive effect on Chelsea's number #12. Not only he gained consistency in his play but he started to show an impressive calm and self confidence in that key part of the field, allowing Frank Lampard to be freed from some defensive duties in the same time he did fluidize the play by his calm but diabolically accurate passing game (1). John Obi Mikel played 34 Premier League games as Chelsea ended the season 3rd. The Nigerian was among the first 11 players to come back without conceiding a goal at the Nou Camp, home of Pep Guardiola's reshaped Barcelona team who'll eventually win the 2009 Champions League after a controversial draw at Stamford Bridge in semi finals of the competition.

Chelsea's play is quite characeristic and features a well known spineback featuring the likes of Petr Cech, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. The game plan widely based of José Mourinho's initial implementation hosts several lineaments: arguably the best player of Chelsea FC's history, Frank Lampard flourished in a typical box-to-box game since his arrival from West Ham in 2001. Ashey Cole followed one of footballing most notable evolutions of the 2nd millenium and etablished himself as an offensive full back as did Wayne Bridge previously. As the vertical runs of those two players requires a compensation in order to maintain a team balance, including what it implies in terms of covering and control of the transition phasis ; Mikel's tactical improvement became one of Chelsea's main asset to enable an enlarged freedom. Thereby, we could notice a sharing of players roles in the playing animation with as an illustration among others Frank Lampard scoring 27 goals in all competitions in 2010.

With John Terry covering his team mate and close friend Ashley Cole when he gets forward by switching on the left flank and his central back partner doing the same, it used to leave a huge space to fill between the two central defenders. With his incredibly accurate passing game and propensity to keep the ball under pressure (2) - arguably the best of the squad - John Obi Mikel used to allow there some balance for a system who was coming to an end as its weaknesses were highlighted and taken into account by the opponents especially during the last months of Carlo Ancelotti's tenure at the club. Though Chelsea faced teams who only aimed to block the full backs and put the axis under pressure since the 2010 Autumn, Mikel proved to be pivotal by containing the pressing before one could eventually start to think he limited the damages and that it could be even worse without him, Chelsea being 4th at the Boxing Day. As Ancelotti switched to a 4-4-2 thanks to Fernando Torres' arrival (numerical requirement of one more striker) in January 2011, then he favored the Essien-Lampard double pivot, benching Mikel (who admitted afterward that he was left uneasy and unexplained with that decision) for the most part of the second half of the season.

John Obi Mikel can also be pround of his defensive abilities, especially his tackling technique (used in last resort as he defends standing most of the time) which makes him keeping the ball under control during his interventions. But he's also imperial in the air and uses to reads the play brilliantly in order to intercept passing transmissions in midfield. (3)

As his role is mainly to maintain a team balance, Mikel's play is made very restricted by the successive managers' instructions. With the need of a proper and clean first distribution, Mikel proves to be the perfect link to feed the midfield line or the offensive full backs who became more and more confident about the Nigerian's passing choices as they don't have to worry about a possible counter attack to face due to a possible misplaced pass.

But this calm and composed passing game including a lot of lateral passing quickly became the main argument of a flourishing anti-Mikel campaign from dissatisfied fans who started to blame the Nigerian for the various sporting failures making Chelsea Premier League free since 2010. His detractors often blamed him not to be as vertical in his play as could be Barcelona's Sergio Busquets or Real Madrid's Xabi Alonso who are given in fact a wider role including orientation but also creative passing from the deep (finding intervals and delivering through midfield or defense adverse lines).

But as it was highlighted in Barcelona prospect Oriol Romeu's play, signed by Andre Villas Boas and starting 9 consecutive Premier League games between November and January, this creative play from the deep includes some waste. Like the over-use of the intercepting play who endangered the ball regaining process, that led to some new kinds of phasis to face ; transition phasis nearer to the Chelsea goal as the ball was lost in the beginning of the distribution process or the different way to cope with the numerical inferiority due to a player getting dribbled (4).

Defensive transition phasis eventually became Villas Boas' most apparent failure in his bilan at the club with players failing to press and unsteady passing circuits from the back.

Mikel's sidelining by Villas Boas - who can also be regarded as a blacklisting - due to the Nigerian's difficult start of the season including personnal problems (abducted father) but injury woes as well proved one more time his importance. Villas Boas wanted more verticality from Chelsea's number twelve, not only in terms of passing (what he managed to do the best in AVB's new instructions, e.g the brilliant pass toward Ivanovic providing the cross for Lampard's goal at Blackburn in November) but also with his runs, asking him to be available higher on the pich and providing support. This last point showed to be smart from a Mikel's point of view because it enhanced his palette of skills but it threatened the balance in the team. After a collective mistake against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge where nobody alerted Mikel from a typical Charlie Adam's instinctive run forward resulting of a loss of possession and Maxi Rodriguez's opener ; Villas Boas didn't award his faith in Mikel anymore.

Until recently, Mikel didn't get the credit for the remarquable transformation he uses to operates during games. In fact, the conditions in which he receives the ball are often left aside of consideration. With center backs searching to find Mikel, the distance due to the fact both are covering their respective full backs make passing distances more important and then, pressing pressure increasing (the pressing is usually unleashed in the passing time sequence). Although Mikel then often receives cinderblocks from his center backs, he manages to controls them brilliantly, turnover and feed his team mates with accurate passes in one, two or three touches without ever loosing the ball, sometimes producing a wizard trick by turning on himself and get rid of the two players harassing him.

This restricted playing register did not prevent Mikel to give punctual excellent deliveries forward for years as well as it has shown that Mikel's restrained in a precise role and not selective and opportunist in his playing style (wrongly regarded as chosing the "easiest solution" by his detractors). (5)

Mikel was pivotal in the end of the 2011/2012 season , regaining his starting spot after Di Matteo's arrival as caretaker manager after Villas Boas' departure, he featured in a great "double pivot" partnership with Frank Lampard who was a key in Chelsea's run in to the Champions League and FA Cup win. He also received a lot of pundit's positive critics and a global reward after a brilliant individual performance in Munich where his defensive contribution and his passing choices were brought to another level. (6)

Nigeria, a country where Mikel's best role on the pitch is a political debate (a lot of football federation related or non-related people have spoken about it for years), there's a kind of consensus leading to blame Chelsea for having made of a bright attacking prospect a defensive player with ungrateful duties. But among the Chelsea fans who are now convinced for the most part by Mikel's importance, many don't think for all that the player who scored only 2 goals in 239 games for the club (none in 160 Premier League games) couldn't hold a more attacking role in the future. (7)

But in the immediate, Mikel has really become Chelsea's angular stone in everybody's eyes although he was already for some times for the ones who judged him at his real worth.

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Annexe:

(1): Here are Mikel's detailed passing stats for the last three seasons (due to the data available).

2009/2010, 21+5 games: Average 53.1 passes per game (12th player in PL) with a 89.8% success rate, Premier League's best ( in fact 2nd behind Owen's 195/215 (90.7%) accurate passes).

2010/2011, 28 games: Average 64.4 passes per game (2nd best, behind Essien's 68.9) with a 89.5% success rate, 4th in PL (but Scholes, Djourou and De Jong has 61.7, 39.9 and 49.2 average passes per game).

2011/2012, 15+7 games: Average 49.5 passes per game (34th in PL) with a 90.2% succes rate (10th in PL)

(2): Here's the less dispossessed defending midfielders table for the last 3 seasons. Being dispossessed means losing control of the ball by being tackled by an opponent.

652279dispossessed.png

(3): Here's the aerial challenge table for the defending midfielders the last two seasons:

522291aerialfigures.png

(4): Here's Chelsea's most dribbled players table: With his will to intercept and his defensive naivete, Chelsea had to adapt to Romeu's play. At that moment Chelsea had 3 aligned midfielders rather than one midfield behind two others as it used to be in the past (with Mikel). In that configuration, cope with transition phasis was even more harder.

346394DRIBBLED.png

(5): The excellent carefreechronicles.com decided to publish a sarcastic string of animated images entitled "Mikel's sideway pass #..." in order to mock this superficial reproach. You can find them on Tumblr or Twitter: @CareFreeChronic

(6): Here's Mikel's stats sheets against Munich on Mat thr 19th:

· 67 passes, 88% accuracy: Only Lampard managed more for Chelsea (71, 85% accuracy).

· 5/9 accurate long balls, only Cech got more for Chelsea (12/25)

· 4 tackles and 3 interceptions, only Lampard and Bosingwa got more (4 and 5 interceptions, 4 tackles each). Chelsea got 44% of ball possession, Munich 56%

· 3 aerial challenges won, Cahill and Bertrand has 3 too. Contribution to Chelsea's 65% of aerial challenges won (Bayern got 35%)

· 86 touches, only Lampard got more (96)

· Only 1 turnover and 1 time dispossessed (like his opponent Toni Kroos). Bastian Schweinsteiger got dispossessed 3 times. Frank Lampard got dispossessed 1 time.

· Mikel and Lampard committed 2 and 1 foul, the same as Kroos and Schweinsteiger (who was booked) though Bayern had the ball possession.

(7): John Mikel Obi actually scored two goals with Chelsea.

The 5th goal of a 6-1 win against Macclesfield on January, 2007 the 6th who can be seen

He scored another goal 3 weeks later against Nottingham Forest by tapping in from close range after a Frank Lampard's corner in a 3-0 win.

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You will get a lot of rep's for this, won't you? B)

Great article (I didn't read it whole yet)! I like you as a poster on this forum and I think we need more posters like you on here. Keep up the good work! :yes:

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Dude, I don't know if you're a busy dude or not, but I wish you would do match reports for every Chelsea match. I would love to read your analysis. You should also do a player analysis of every single Chelsea player. I swear I could ask you so many things, you seem to know a lot and I'm curious and want to learn as much as I can. Of course doing all of that is a lot of work, but I figured I would ask because I love stuff like this more than anything lol.

Great post, hope you do more.

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Dude, I don't know if you're a busy dude or not, but I wish you would do match reports for every Chelsea match. I would love to read your analysis. You should also do a player analysis of every single Chelsea player. I swear I could ask you so many things, you seem to know a lot and I'm curious and want to learn as much as I can. Of course doing all of that is a lot of work, but I figured I would ask because I love stuff like this more than anything lol.

Great post, hope you do more.

I've a Premier League blog in French (maybe you read a bit of French as you are canadian ?), I wrote some stuff

http://mypremierleag...hor/sebluelion/

I did previews and reviews for the first 7 Chelsea games but I stopped because it needs a lot of time.

Stats, and more stats.

We still need a better DM.

The stats I posted are only an illustration, I don't pretend its to be the main thing. Because you can give stats the meaning you want

I would be interested to hear what you precisely expect from a DM, what you reproach Mikel with etc... I developped a point of view (that I wanted the most objective as I could), if you could list me some of your points :)

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Undoubtedly Mikel has improved aspects of his game, his decision making his improved, his positioning in defensive positions has improved, his anticipation of where the greatest dangers will come from have improved, his decision making has improved and he is far less rash with his challenges than he was.

Is he now a genuinely top class shielding midfielder? I have my doubts. In possession he remains rather plodding, not really a problem give that our general build up play tends to be measured but with players like Hazard, Marin, Mata, Oscar (hopefully) and Torres, quick distribution to those players to enable them to exploit space will be so important and Im not sure if Mikel is the right man for the job. Mobility will always be an issue with Mikel too, he struggles to cover ground fast.

No doubt he is a calming influence, he is a physical presence in the middle of the pitch, would I have him over Busquets, Alonso or even Romeu? No.

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As i've said, he's got better in the last 2 seasons quite clearly. He's good good feet, good touch, good composure, great reading of the game, he's tough, solid, physical, strong, he can shoot too, i know he aint scored but he has got a good hit on him when he tries it. His passing is good, his awareness is much better around him too and he is making more forward passes and he is a real key turning defence into attack. Ok so i've basically described the best CDM ever but seriously, he does have all those attributes, even his long range distribution has improved 10 fold.

Now he's 25, he's perfect for us. Now he needs to perhaps develop his attacking a tiny bit, have a pop at goal, get 3 goals a season and provide that killer pass like Song at Arsenal has done so well in the last 12 months.

I didn't like him at all but credit to him, he's quality and i wouldn't swap him for anyone.

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I've a Premier League blog in French (maybe you read a bit of French as you are canadian ?), I wrote some stuff

http://mypremierleag...hor/sebluelion/

I did previews and reviews for the first 7 Chelsea games but I stopped because it needs a lot of time.

The stats I posted are only an illustration, I don't pretend its to be the main thing. Because you can give stats the meaning you want

I would be interested to hear what you precisely expect from a DM, what you reproach Mikel with etc... I developped a point of view (that I wanted the most objective as I could), if you could list me some of your points :)

Very simple: a modern DM: one that can help the defence, but also help the team with passes, goals and assists. Mikel is a good squad player, because he is needed when the team needs a defensive aproach.

Mikel is useless when you need to score goals and create chances.

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I am going to learn French just so I can read SeB's articles (and to impress people).

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ok, SeB you were definately an alayst for some football cub, stop holdin out and fess up! :D

He is a Youth Coach at a Clairefontaine.

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Very simple: a modern DM: one that can help the defence, but also help the team with passes, goals and assists. Mikel is a good squad player, because he is needed when the team needs a defensive aproach.

Mikel is useless when you need to score goals and create chances.

I haven't been convinced by "attacking defensive midfielders" yet. Villas Boas was right when he pointed to the fact his DM shoudld be vertical at times to surprise the opponent by searching the striker. That what is Alonso or Pirlo's stock in trade. But for me that's all a defensive midfielder can do.

You barely can create chances from the centre of the field although we've several examples of it, e.g some of Lampard vertical long balls for some FA Cup goals we scored at Wembley. But it doesn't happens every game, especially at home in Stamford Bridge's small pitch, especially against teams who use to park the bus.

Otherwise, to create chances you have to go forward at least in the last tier. My concern is who gets in the space you created by your run forward ? None of the two solutions please me:

  • You ask a player who plays in front of the DM to get into that space. But if he plays just a bit higher than the DM it's because he's better offensively, so then the DM won't have the same impact. Pointing what Song does is a fair point, but he's not an AM, that's great to praise his terrific vertical assists to Van Persie ; but you can point the waste in this kind of deliveries he tries to make, or all the times Arteta shouts at him to ask him to stay forward and not getting forward everytime.

  • Nobody fills that space left by the DM left behind, then in case of a loss of possession you face an awkward counter attack. Or you improve dramatically your collective conservation of the ball. But so then you need the Nasris, players who'll guarantee 5 yard backward risk-free passes. It's an endless circle

If you have offensive full backs, how can you pretend having an attacking minded defensive player as well ? Even Barcelona plays with Busquets who acts as a 3rd CB. The difference is that as I tried to point, it's a matter of roles. But roles are also dependent of your team's playing. I mean when Barcelona players trains in the same system, same organisation etc during their time at academy... (I recently watched U11 kids playing 11 vs 11, it was a friendly against Arsenal youth, I don't know if they use to play with 11 players the whole season but it was just terrific). Then the play gets prowled, it's easier for the player holding Busquets role to pick a good pass as there's always 3 passing choices aroung him (the famous triangles the players makes around the holder with short moves without the ball).

It only needs time to create a playing identity, it's not just some meanless stuff, when players gets used to a system and know each other, who'll make that move etc... it gets easier.

Asking your DM to provide support or making late runs is a wise idea because most of the times the DM aren't expected to make this kind of runs. In fact that's why when they start their run they're unmarked and they're likely to be too at the end of their run.

Reason why Malouda isn't the only one to blame for Spain's first goal against France (especially because the system hasn't been used at training during the week before). He's standing in front of his goal and not how he should be (3/4 position) but in fact Alonso starts from Malouda's back, it's impossible to regain a 5 or 6 yard retard on just 30 yards.

I was really impressed by Charlie Adam and Blackpool's vertical play, they went forward everytime they could. Adam played very deep with David Vaughan, Adam wasn't afraid to make a 60 yard at full speed or trying a 60 yard diagonal from his own half. He had defensive duties as it can be seen in the figures above. But when he got forward he was (brilliantly) covered by Vaughan, just all the time, everytime!

Maybe the double pivot is the future as many teams plays a kind of 4-2-3-1 with a more or less attaking minded player in support (it can be a third midfielder or a trequarista). But even in that system, even if you try to get two complete players, there's a little sharing of roles as you've a player a bit more defensive minded and the other one more attaching minded (Germany's system with Schweinsteiger deep and Khedira as a box to box).

Everytime you'll have a midfielder more defensive minded (as I said above even Barcelona and his possession and intense pressing playing style has one). And you cannot reproach him not to be riskfull and not giving a hand of assists every season.

Maybe the double pivot will make Mikel getting some assists... But in fact we've such an attacking potential with Hazard, Lampard, Mata who arent strikers but who have striker's figures (they're closer to the 20 than just the double figures).

I'd prefer Mikel to stay the same at the moment, I mean there's no point asking him to get forward just for the sake of him getting an assist. That's pretentious and I prefer not to imagine the amount of opportunities in the play it would require to finally get a goal/assist (like for Song, in fact he's and that's really exasperating)

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@SeB

The thing is when we are trying to break down QPR, Norwich etc, Mikel is not of much use as Ramires or a deep lying playmaker can offer more going forward. Mikel just propels possession, he doesn't chip the final ball through like Song does or go forward to attack as much as Carrick does. We need to play dynamic mids when we face weaker opposition to free up space for our creative mids to prosper - Oscar(?), Mata.

I agree with your assessment of Mikel though. He has developed into a proper cultured midfielder and I would want him to be in the team when we face vibrant counter attacking teams

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Stats, and more stats.

We still need a better DM.

Who is better and available at a reasonable price?

John Michael Nchekwube Obinna is a good DM and will improve, he's only 24-25.

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Dude this took me around 40 minutes to read. Feels like I've just read a small book lol. Great insight with depth and quality to your post, surely you can't be going for member of the month 2 awards running? Beast!

You can tell me all the stats and statistics in the world though but I will only judge a player with my very own eyes and to me Mikel has improved immensely but still not quite the Defensive midfielder i would love to have marshaling the midfield at Chelsea. I reckon he will be the Mac daddy this year though, so many things to look forward to this season it's unbelievable how things have changed drastically from the Christmas period of 2011!

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@Seb

Mikel has no quality to play in another role, all he can do is a defensive role. We need another kind of DM, I know the importance of a guy like Mikel, but he is really overrated by fans in this forum.

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