John Obi Mikel is a divisive figure: half the Chelsea fans I speak to appreciate the young Nigerian, others don’t. Fans of other clubs (who don’t watch Chelsea games in full) invariably don’t rate him. The truth is however that he’s a rapidly improving player with talent beyond his years. For the benefit of both his and the club’s long-term future, it’s crucial that he now receives the backing his talent deserves.
It’s not been the smoothest of rides for Obi Mikel (or is it Mikel Obi? Those I sit with at the Bridge often call him Obi Wan) since he joined Chelsea back in 2006. His transfer itself was controversial of course, but in his first three years at the club he was sent off four times and collected more yellow cards than the Special One had press conferences. His discipline was clearly an issue, and not just on the pitch – three fines came for arriving late for training – and he seemed to be suffering from over-confidence.
Last season things worked better for Mikel however. Relied upon first by Scolari and then Hiddink – in no small part due to Essien’s horrendous injury – the Chelsea number 12 looked set to properly take the reins from Claude Makelele in the holding role, who had left the club the previous summer.
Strings of games followed and, to many at least, he was improving. Unfortunately a tendency towards inconsistency and the odd concentration lapse – from memory a couple of the goals in the 1-3 away defeat to Roma were down to his errors – came to characterise his ability for many looking to judge his progress. He was often – and is still – accused of being too negative, only able to pass sideways and a defensive liability.
It’s not hard to see why some Chelsea fans don’t rate Mikel. If the figures are to believed, Chelsea may have paid up to £16m for him (although the club’s recent exoneration in the deal to sign him might see some of that recouped), and such a high transfer fee brings greater expectation. He has been prone to lingering too long on the ball and he has had concentration lapses. Perhaps more than anything else, following the exemplary Makelele is very tall order indeed.
To judge Mikel by such standards however is neither fair nor realistic. He is just 22 years of age (he’s 23 next month), exceptionally young for a holding player, and actually shows uncommon discipline, reading of the game and awareness for someone of his age. How many players aged 22 have played 153 games in that position for such a high-profile club, all in just three and a half seasons? Not many.
And – it seems to me at least – parts of his game are starting to improve dramatically. Again because of an Essien injury, Ancelotti has given Mikel a sustained run in the first team and it is paying dividends. One or two errors aside (the header to Tevez in the Man City game, for example), he has been exceptionally consistent over the last couple of months, having a 94% pass completion rate over the four consecutive Premier League games he has played. A swashbuckling Essien he is not of course, but he has been more adventurous with his passing and is moving the ball far quicker. Perhaps this is Ancelotti’s influence – after all, we know that the Italian likes his deep-lying midfielders to operate as playmakers, hence his attempts to sign Pirlo last summer.
Above all, Mikel is starting to demonstrate an Essien-like self confidence in his own strength on the ball. Repeatedly over the past month we have seen him time and again receive the ball in close quarters in his own half, hold off two opposition players, emerge with the ball and move it forwards on to a blue shirt. Taking responsibility in such dangerous areas of the pitch certainly suggests a player growing in maturity.
Unfortunately, with that responsibility comes greater risk. Ultimately that greater risk will, occasionally, bring mistakes. And here lies the issue: are Chelsea – and not just the manager, but also the fans – ready to accept players, especially young players, making mistakes?
If we aren’t able have a little more patience to understand that young players need game time to improve, and if we can't accept that giving them time means mistakes might be made, the club will need to stick with its existing one-dimensional, limiting and expensive ‘off the shelf’ transfer strategy if it wants to stay competitive.
That will cost Chelsea not only money – money it probably doesn’t have - but also youthful drive and enthusiasm. For Chelsea’s management (and its fans), now is the time to recognise Mikel’s improvement and forgive his mistakes – the success of one young player could lead to the success of others. If they don’t though, it could reinforce the awkward precedent that youth doesn’t get a chance at the club, and present an almost insuperable barrier to rebuilding the squad for the future.
What do you think about Mikel? Please post a comment. And before I forget: bridgeviews.co.uk has been nominated for an award! Check out the nominees here - and drop the organisers a note about what Chelsea blog you like best and why...