John Obi Mikel: What Went Wrong for Nigeria Midfielder at Chelsea?

Ed Dove@EddydoveContributor IIIJuly 30, 2013

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 18:  John Obi Mikel of Chelsea faces the media during a Chelsea Training Session & Press Conference ahead of the Uefa Champions League Group E match between Chelsea and Juventus at Stamford Bridge on September 18, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

This article looks at Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel, exploring the uncertainty that surrounds his current role at Chelsea, and recalling the future that was once expected of him.

If things had been going well for John Obi Mikel we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.

The rumours linking the Nigerian central midfielder to a whole plethora of clubs have been conspicuous in their regularity this summer and even as we enter August, his future remains uncertain.

In principle, the 26 year old should be entering into an exciting phase of his career. At this age his game should have entered maturity and he should be looking towards cementing his place as one of Europe’s finest midfielders.

However, while his contemporaries are dominating contests in the highest arenas of the game, Mikel still faces questions about where exactly his best position is.

The return of Jose Mourinho to Chelsea could easily have been considered a reason for the Nigerian to be optimistic. It was Mourinho, after all, who procured Mikel from under the noses of Manchester United at such great expense, and it was Mourinho who saw in Mikel all of the potential required to become the natural heir to Claude Makelele.

One might expect that the Portuguese boss would therefore relish the prospect of resuming work on his project, on picking up the pieces with Mikel and continuing the transformation of a player who was once such a tantalising prospect.

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The more cynical might suggest that Mourinho, in fact, is most at fault for the current predicament Mikel finds himself in.

It is easy to forget, but John Obi hasn’t always been the lumbering, bumbling defensive midfielder often spotted waddling around the centre of the pitch at Stamford Bridge. Once he was a glorious attacking talent, striding around the turf with a near-delirious uproar.

Back in 2005, at the FIFA Youth Championships, Mikel outshone stars such as Sergio Aguero and Cesc Fabregas and was, with the exception of the imperious Lionel Messi, the outstanding attacking talent of the tournament.

Imagine that the next time you see him huffing and puffing in the Premier League, clumsily letting the ball bounce off him, or struggling to keep pace with another nimble attacking talent.

I exaggerate of course, but upon moving to England, the Mikel I describe was lost for good.

Mourinho, aware of the attacking menace already provided by Frank Lampard and Michael Essien; realising the imminent need of replacing defensive stalwart Makelele; seduced, possibly, by the pervading paradigm of the imposing West African midfielder, sought to redevelop the Nigerian into a far less provocative talent.

It soon became apparent that Makelele was impossible to replace; or if not replace, replicate.

Mikel lacked the tactical nous and defensive discipline of his predecessor and didn’t possess the pace or dynamism of his successors across the Premier League, men like Mohamed Diame, Yaya Toure and Victor Wanyama, who have once again moved the goalposts and taken the game beyond Mikel.

Fascinatingly, Nigeria’s recent revival and a return to the top of the continental tree after 19 years of underachievement, has provided Mikel with an ideal environment to demonstrate that once-prodigal ability that had appeared to be lost in the ether.

Stephen Keshi’s remodelling of the Super Eagles, filling the team with young, inexperienced and domestic-based talent, made a man out of Mikel.

The inconsistent, precocious wunderkind suddenly became a player of influence and responsibility.

Surrounded by youngsters, Mikel became the crucial component, the central fulcrum of Keshi’s elect. At both the triumphant Cup of Nations and the slightly less convincing Confederations Cup earlier in the summer, he was a majestic, imperious force in the heart of the side.

With tantalising touches and expert teamwork, Mikel consistently and relentlessly drove his team forward, brought his teammates into play and demonstrated the creativity and vision that won him so many plaudits as a teenager.

His goal against Uruguay, all poise, balance and ferocity, was, for a single, solitary second, a window back in time, a glimpse at why Mikel was once announced as the successor to Jay-Jay Okocha. Such a vivid, explosive talent in his day.

Writing about Mikel’s terrific performances in Brazil this summer, I concluded the following:

While Nigeria fans are naturally delighted at the elegant influence Mikel has had in the middle of the park over the last year of sport, joy is tinged with regret when remembering the delirious talent stolen by English football.

The Nigerian now arrives at a crossroads in his career. Will he finally be able to develop into a valuable asset to Chelsea, more than merely a familiar part of the furniture, or does he require a move away to pastures new, in order to reignite a career that is stalling badly?

Even in light of interest from clubs such as Monaco, Galatasaray and Trabzonspor, it may be that Mikel’s best bet is to remain at Chelsea.

It is easy to forget how many honours the Nigerian has accumulated in West London and it may be that the return of Mourinho, a manager who has—at one time at least—valued his contribution, can inject the Nigerian with a new vitality.

If not, we may be destined to forever view Mikel’s career with regret, to remember those majestic touches simply as isolated moments and to lament the loss of the player he might have been.

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