Chelsea Roundtable: John Obi Mikel—Flattering to Deceive or Top-Notch Talent?

...Senior Writer IJanuary 22, 2009

Welcome to the second edition of the Chelsea Roundtable, where we get a few contributors to give their view on important Chelsea matters.

As always, our old pal and trusty Community Leader Alan McGuiness is with us. And this time I wanted to get a non-Chelsea point of view too, so I caught up with Manchester United fan, Steven Ho.

I asked both of our contributors five questions and and not surprisingly their answers (and mine) vary and in some cases, totally differ. So without further ado, let's get going...


1. Has he done better than expected?

Salomon Gonzales:

Having arrived with huge reputation, I'd say he has slightly under-achieved.

He has been the under-study to the departed Makelele, ever since his move to Chelsea and Lassana Diarra, who was the original under-study, was sold to  accommodate him. His positioning awareness as a defensive midfielder is far from what you'd expect a starting player at Chelsea to be.

However, we need to keep in mind that Mikel, prior to moving to Chelsea, was not a holding player. For his old Norwegian club and the U-18 Nigerian National side, he was used as an attacking midfielder. He was, if i remember correctly, voted the second best player in a U-18 tournament with Nigeria. First place was taken by Lionel Messi, and it is widely believed that Messi was chosen as number one solely because Argentina beat Nigeria in the final. Either way, this goes a long way in showing what a real talent Mikel represents.

Having said all this, Mikel has been one of the shining lights at Chelsea this season. Frank Lampard aside, he has been the consistent performer in the side.

With this in mind, I am well pleased with the progress he has been making.

Steven Ho:

I don't think so. In fact I think he's failed miserably to live up to the expectations set for him when he first signed for the club. Of course, expectations always differ from person to person but we must remember that he was not only courted by Chelsea but also by Man United, so it's very probable that he was rated as one of the potential outstanding prospects in football.

And yet, in the two seasons he's been at Chelsea he's done nothing to live up to that claim. Based on the games I've watched, he's shown himself to be nothing more than an average player of average technical ability and average footballing intelligence. I have yet to see an outstanding performance from him that would warrant his place at a club like Chelsea, one of the biggest football clubs in Europe.

He's also popularly tipped as the natural successor to Claude Makelele—the man whose name is synonymous with the "holding midfielder" role—who left last summer. Yet he's so deficient in the qualities that made Makelele the great player he was. He can't hold the ball well; he can't defend well; he lacks intelligence, anticipation; and he's not a great passer too.

And you know what? People talk about Berbatov being a lazy player, but if you really watch Mikel in games you'll realise that often he's one of the most static players on the pitch.

All in all, based on what he's produced so far I feel only the staunchest Mikel fan would say that he's lived up to, or exceeded, expectations.

Alan McGuiness:

I'd heard a lot of hype about him before we signed him so my expectations were quite high. He has lived up to them. 

I've always been a big fan and defender of him and I feel that now he is showing that my stock in him is high for a reason.


2- Does he deserve all the critisism that come his way?

Salomon Gonzales:

No players are perfect and they are all rightfully critisised when they put a foot wrong. The other week Chelsea were detroyed 3-0 by United, but John Terry hardly put a foot wrong all game. Still though, he had to shoulder some of the critisism that came his way simply because he is a football captain. Being critisised is part and parcel of being a footballer, so in that sense, he deserves some of of critisism that comes his way.

The level of critisism thrown at him though, I feel is a tad unfair.

"He can't pass to save his life", "He can't shoot to save his life either", "He doesn't know how to tackle".

These are some of the critisism that is hurled at him week after week. Granted his passing isn't up scratch, but how do you expect someone to produce a great pass or a killer through ball when every single time he is possession of the ball he has 2-3 players standing on top of him waiting for the short 3-yard pass? As soon as he gets hold of the ball Lampard, Deco, and Ballack all make runs towards him expecting a pass. Very rarely has he had the chance to move forward with the ball, and have the time to produce a good pass.

Yes he can't shoot but, quite frankly, he isn't meant to have shots at goal. His job is to protect the back four, and that's what he does. How many goals did Makelele score in his career?

To be fair, his tackling has vastly improved from previous seasons when he used to receive yellow and red cards on a monthly basis. Nowadays, since he has matured, he does not go ground that easily. Hence, rash tackles are eliminated. He still has some way to go though but he is getting there.

Steven Ho:

It's a bit absurb to say that he deserves ALL the criticism that comes his way, but obviously he deserves the ones that can be evidentially justified.

Like, for example, one of my biggest criticisms of him is that he has a terrible lack of concentration. We've seen it in numerous matches so far this season: Roma, Fulham, Man United, Arsenal, Blackburn, are just a few off the top of my head. But it seems to happen in almost every game, which is inexcusable.

Another criticism I have for him is that he's actually very poor technically. A lot of passes from him have been made to look good by his teammates, rather than being a good pass by itself. And he's also lost the ball numerous, and crucial, times simply because his control hasn't been good enough.

Just look at Roma's third goal in Chelsea's 0-3 away defeat, and how he gave away the ball so cheaply to Park Ji Sung in their recent 3-0 defeat to Manchester United; just two examples that perfectly illustrate how clumsy he has been in crucial matches this season. 

Mikel is not being made a scapegoat in the face of Chelsea's recent poor form. The criticisms he's been receiving can be clearly justified and so, yes, he does deserve them.

Alan McGuiness:

A few seasons ago he deserved some of it, because he was rash with his tackling and did make a number of mistakes. He got a few needless red cards.

However, some of them were not red cards and his reputation began to work against him. But since then he has come on leaps and bounds. Nowadays he is much calmer on the ball and an overall better player.

3) Should he keep his place, once Essien returns to fitness?

Salomon Gonzales:

Yes, he should. Up untill recently I was convinced that Essien should return to the starting line-up, only if he was to replace Mikel. I have since then, changed my stance.

Mikel should definitely keep his place. If, and only if, he has to be replaced, then Julio Belletti would be more suitable to take his spot.

Essien is not a defensive midfielder, despite what people think. He is an attacking midfielder, but due to his physical approach and non-stop hassling of opponents people tend to believe that he is actually a defensive player.

Therefore when Essien returns, he should replace another attacking player: either Deco or Ballack. That's if they are still putting in the dire performances they have been recently. I am a firm believer that every player, no matter how great his ability, should be made to work for his place in the team, earn it. Essien should be, and is, no different.

A midfield line-up of Mikel, Essien, Deco (would've said Joe Cole, but sadly he'll be out for the remainder of the season) and Lampard doesn't look too shabby does it?

Steven Ho:


But I'm not saying that I think Scolari should automatically replace Mikel with Essien simply because Essien is more talented. I think both players are actually equally poor in many respects. Rather, my rationale is that Mikel has been the source of so many costly errors for Chelsea, that simply replacing him with anyone—whether that's Essien or anyone else capable—would be an improvement, and thus the right choice.

If it is Essien that the manager chooses to replace Mikel with, Essien wouldn't need to put in outstanding performances to justify replacing Mikel; just not making calamitous errors would be good enough.

Saying all of that, I think that the right choice for Scolari right now is to replace Mikel with Julio Belletti, and when Essien returns keep him as a backup. We've already seen, in Didier Drogba's case, how a player coming back from injury, no matter how much ability they've shown in the past, can perform way below par. That's why I think it's very unlikely that a player like Essien will be the magic bullet a lot of Chelsea fans are hoping him to be.

Belleti, however, is a proven talented individual who has shown potency in both defense and attack. And most importantly, he is an experienced player. Therefore he would not be as vulnerable to the sort of horrific errors that Mikel has been making, the sort of errors that have been costing Chelsea so many points.

Alan McGuiness:

Yes. He has been one our best players this season alongside Lampard and he doesn't deserve to be dropped, something I can't say about some other players. I'd move Essien further forward and drop Deco.

With Joe Cole now out for the rest of the season I'd play a midfield of: Mikel, Lampard, Ballack and Essien.


4) He's 21 now. Looking at his past performances, how good do you
reckon he could get?

Salomon Gonzales:

Well, it's not an easy thing to predict but I'd say he'll turn out pretty good. In the two years he has been at Chelsea, he has managed to reduce the amount of fouls he concedes, hence also the amount of bookings and sending offs he recieves.

In another two years, he could possibly add something else to his game that he doesn't already have. Improving tackles would be a good place to start. If he masters his tackling to perfection and improves on his ball distribution he could turn out to be one hell of a player.

As for now though, he is making steady progress and I am pleased with his attitude and performances so far.

I'd say he has the potential to be a better holding player than Makelele ever was, which shows how high my expectations are for him.

Steven Ho:

It's incredibly difficult to make any sort of prediction in football so I'm hesitant to make a prediction about Mikel's potential.

But if I had to, I would say that... he can only become as good as Darren Fletcher has been for Man United, early on this season.

My reasons? Well, Fletcher also showed similar qualities as Mikel in the past: lack of concentration, poor ball distribution, weak defending etc. Fletcher also plays the same role as Mikel does now, and for a couple of seasons he was massively under-performing in my opinion, much like Mikel is right now.

Fletcher has managed to improve significantly, though, and this season he's shown himself to be one of United's most improved players over the last year. He's grown up a lot, and perhaps Mikel will eventually do the same. The only caveat I would add is that whilst Fletcher has obviously put in a lot of work to improve himself, I've yet to see the same level of determination and internal motivation in Mikel.

Alan McGuiness:

I definitely think he can become one of the best midfielders in the Premiership. He reminds me of Makelele in many ways and also has the added bonus of a much more imposing stature.

If he keeps on improving at the rate he is now then the £16 million we paid Manchester United and Lyn Oslo for him will look like a very shrewd piece of business.

5) Does he really make as many mistakes as opposition fans are claiming?

Salomon Gonzales:

I honestly do not think he makes that many mistakes. The only ones that are stuck in my mind are the errors against Roma that cost us a few goals, and in the 2-2 draw against Fulham, where his lack of awareness allowed Clint Dempsey to rescue a point for Fulham in the dying minutes.

He has played virtually every minute since the third game this season, when Essien returned to the club injured from international duty.

For a 21 year old, who is having his first real run in the side, I think he has done remarkably well. He is getting more and more relaxed on the ball and he does not over-complicate things as some players like to do.

The errors he HAS made however, have been crucially punished and hence why it is so highlighted so much.

Steven Ho:

Personally, I've criticized him for some mistakes but it's actually his overall poor play that I'm most critical about, especially defensively.

When he tries to tackle players, he looks like a lost puppy. He's shown a really amateur way of defending, where he simply runs after the ball whilst it's easily being passed around him. Frankly, it's the kind of defending that you literally expect to see on a school playground.

Another key responsibility for a defensive midfielder is to track player's runs into the box. Yet time and time again this season he has simply not done it.

He appears so lazy sometimes, jogging back to goal instead being hell-bent on winning the ball back. You'll often see him tracking a player for a few yards and then give up, relying on the defense to pick him up instead. Is that good enough for a club expected to win major titles?

In the heading department, he's been caught out too, as not being a strong header of the ball. Passing from midfield, he's also displayed nothing special.

All in all, I don't think he possesses the intelligence, skill, or determination yet to be a defensive midfielder.

If anyone is unsure of why I have this viewpoint on Mikel, go back and watch the games that he's played this season and truly analyse his performances in them. I guarantee you that you'll see what I described above. 

You question to me was: does he really make as many mistakes as fans are claiming? I don't know how many mistakes fans are claiming but my answer is that he's made enough crucial mistakes, enough amateurish errors in his poor play, to deserve to be dropped from the side until he's improved a lot more.

Alan McGuiness:

He used to.

Now he retains the ball better and doesn't jump into tackles as much. I think a lot of opposition fans haven't watched him properly and just jump on his reputation he picked up during his first two seasons with Chelsea.

He has an arrogance on the ball that makes him stand out. He just doesn't seem to think he's going to lose it. Sometimes he appears to be a bit complacent but overall he has turned into a very important player for Chelsea.



That's it! I would like to thank Steven Ho for his wonderful and colourful contribution. It was priceless. And Alan McGuiness for his continued contribution to the Chelsea community.



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