Is Mikel the emperor with no clothes?


Chelsea’s FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester City has reignited the John Obi Mikel debate.

Not for the first time the Nigerian midfielder is accused of being the man who is holding Chelsea back.

It’s all a far cry from when José Mourinho brought him to Chelsea at the age of 19 and described him as “pure gold”.

He wasn’t a cheap acquisition as Chelsea had to pay £16 million in a complicated court case that included a payment to Manchester United.

A creative midfielder, Mikel was meant to be the future in 2006 but he was quickly converted to a defensive role. However, his performances in the 2009-10 title winning season seemed to justify that claim. A Champions League title, four FA Cups and a League Cup have also come his way at Stamford Bridge.

Yet, he doesn’t seem to have kicked on even though a succession of high profile coaches at Chelsea have maintained their faith in him and this season he signed a new five year contract..

Here’s a player who has played 250 plus games and the jury is still out as to whether defensive midfield is his rightful position, and others are even debating whether he’s good enough for Chelsea.

His Opta stats for this season compared to three years ago show less tackles, less blocks, less interceptions and fewer passes in the final third. Some say this is why Chelsea have lost ground in the Premier League.

That semi-final against Manchester City is a microcosm of all that is wrong with Mikel at Chelsea. A ponderous performance so poor you’d say if Mikel were the emperor, then at last those singing his praises would see he has no clothes.

“He was anonymous. I never quite got what everyone saw in him,” says former Chelsea star turned media pundit Tony Cascarino.

Many thought that the appearance of Mikel and Eden Hazard as second half substitutes in the quarter-final at Old Trafford against Manchester United turned the game and enabled Chelsea to come from behind and get a draw.

The alternate view is that a myth has grown around this result and the tactical astuteness of manager Rafael Benitze’s change allowing Chelsea to move forward. Rory Smith says: “I think what happens when Mikel is on is they all have to put in extra energy because they feel they are only a 10 man team.”

Cascarino is even more damning. “He’s nothing earth shattering. I don’t get him. It’s the water carrier role but we now expect more from players. It’s not just about breaking play up but doing something with the ball.”

“He doesn’t move, can’t tackle and makes Chelsea very ponderous.”

“When he takes the ball from the centre-halves and looks to move forward it’s all done at a very slow pace.”

Former Super Eagle Benedict Akwuegbu agrees about the lack of inspiration in his passing. “He can’t make those (penetrative) passes. If he could, we’d have seen them by now.”

It’s all very negative for the Chelsea incarnation of Mikel, yet at the African Cup of Nations he was positive in the group games in particular and created goals for the Super Eagles. A long time ago he forged a youthful reputation as one of the best players at the U-20 World Cup alongside one Lionel Messi.

There are other blows for Mikel to take. His reading of the game is not particularly good. This season with Chelsea the passes are easier, not eye catching and lack penetration. He’s never been a prolific scorer, but he has turned out to be a regular visitor to the referee’s notebook which does make him a bit of a liability.

That said, he’s not being asked to be creative – Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar have creativity in abundance.

Next season will be interesting at the Bridge. Will the new coach have faith in Mikel and it remains a case of the emperor has no clothes or will a new defensive fulcrum be a key Blues import.

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