Positional confusion and the mystery of what happened to John Obi Mikel

Words By Sean Cole Illustration by Philippe Fenner
July 10, 2018

Youth tournaments can be a woefully unreliable predictor of future success. There are so many factors involved in developing from a teenage prodigy to a fully-formed star, with plenty of potential stumbling blocks to navigate. Many of the brightest prospects soon fade from view. John Obi Mikel made it to the top, but not in quite the way anyone expected him to.

Fought over by several of Europe’s leading clubs as a teenager, he turned into a very different player from the one who first burst onto the scene. As an 18-year-old he led Nigeria to the final of the FIFA World Youth Championships and was favourite to win the Golden Ball for the tournament’s best player before Lionel Messi scored a brace to claim victory for Argentina and the individual plaudits for himself.

The idea that Mikel and Messi were once similarly acclaimed now seems faintly absurd. One has become arguably the greatest footballer of all time while another developed into little more than a high-grade water carrier, his spark of creativity dulled by pragmatic demands.

Looking back at that tournament, held in the Netherlands during the summer of 2005, a few things stand out. While some players have fallen by the wayside, a decent number went on to thrive at the top level. Of the 504 who took part, 214 became full internationals. Some, like Messi and Mikel, assumed leading roles.

There were lots of other future stars involved that year. Keisuke Honda, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Pablo Zabaleta, Sergio Aguero, Radamel Falcao and Filipe Luis are just some of the most notable names. Messi was top scorer with six goals, one more than Spain’s Fernando Llorente.

Of the Nigeria team that made it to the final, 11 were capped by the senior squad, but Mikel was the only one to feature in this summer’s World Cup. Daniel Akpeyi was on the substitutes’ bench for the Under-20s back in 2005 and fulfilled a similar role in Russia. Between then and now Mikel has always been one of his country’s key figures, but his style of play has been completely transformed.

Strange as it may seem, when he first started out he was considered a potential world-beater. A dynamic and skilful playmaker who loved dribbling with the ball and had an eye for incisive, defence-splitting passes. That version of Mikel is almost unrecognisable from what he became. That instinctive, forward-thinking side to his game was supressed as the needs of the system took precedence.

It was Mikel’s skill and creativity that first attracted the interest of Chelsea and Manchester United, leading to a notorious transfer wrangle that required FIFA’s involvement to find a resolution. Both agreed deals with his first club Lyn, and a contract was initially signed with United. Following bizarre allegations of kidnapping and foul play, Mikel ended up at Chelsea, who had to reach a settlement with both sides.

The lengths they went to in order to close the deal showed quite how highly the teenage midfielder was regarded. The Chelsea hierarchy saw Mikel as a star in the making, someone who would become a first team fixture at Stamford Bridge for years to come. In a sense he did, making 374 competitive appearances in a decade at the club, but as a very different player to the one they bought, and frequently a peripheral one.

Mikel became a cog in an often unenterprising machine. A tall and strapping figure, he was converted into a holding midfielder who broke up play and safely ferried the ball on to more attacking teammates. His game was completely reconfigured around his physical attributes and a positional discipline imposed by Jose Mourinho, who was looking to phase out an ageing Claude Makelele.

Lassana Diarra and Mikel had both been identified as potential successors to the Frenchman, whose unfussy contributions had gained great acclaim in Chelsea’s rise to prominence. In English football it even became know as ‘the Makelele role’ – that of a deep-lying defensive shield who smothered opposition attacks and moved the ball on simply and effectively. It required great discipline and reading of the game, but little imagination.

When Diarra was sold to Arsenal at the end of the summer transfer window in August 2007, Mikel was the only challenger remaining. The position became his by default as Makelele left after a first trophyless season in four years. The season that followed was Mikel’s busiest by far as a Chelsea player with 50 appearances in all competitions. He started all but two of those games, including 34 in the league.

Although it wasn’t a stellar campaign by Chelsea’s standards, with just the FA Cup won by interim manager Guus Hiddink after Luiz Felipe Scolari had been sacked, it was as good as it got for Mikel. He signed a new five-year contract in recognition of his increased importance but would flit in and out of the side during that time. He was always involved but rarely, if ever, essential.

Supporters became increasingly frustrated by what they saw as Mikel’s limited skillset – his unambitious passing and reluctance to take risks in possession. Shorn of his previous freedom, he became little more than a sideways shuttler, a diligent yet dull holding midfielder.

Yet the accusations of a lack of ability were unfair. Mikel had shown what he was capable of as a youngster, it’s just that nobody at Chelsea wanted him to be that player anymore. Perhaps he wasn’t able to either.

For Nigeria, the situation was rather different. Mikel was often used in a more advanced role in recognition of where his strengths had once lay, but he was arguably no longer suited to acting as a creative force. Out of practice, and with those instincts suppressed by a succession of club managers, he could seem awkward when reverting to his original position.

The debate about Mikel’s abilities, and where he plays best, was reignited during the World Cup, when he was picked as the most advanced midfielder for Nigeria’s first game against Croatia. As a pundit for Russian TV, Jose Mourinho remarked that “Nigeria lost a good number 6 to get a bad number 10”, leading to a pointed response from Gernot Rohr about the Manchester United manager’s cautious mindset.

It was an interesting exchange, and telling that it should be instigated by Mourinho. It struck at the heart of a debate that has long surrounded Mikel, and one that was first ignited during Mourinho’s time as Chelsea manager. The Nigerian carved out a long career at the top level playing that way, and claimed several trophies doing so, but some of his talents were effectively shackled.

The statistics don’t lie. Even accounting for the difference in standard, Mikel scored one goal in six league appearances for his first club Lynn, and the same number in 249 for Chelsea. He registered just 11 assists.

Maybe Mourinho was right, and Mikel was never quite good enough to succeed as a playmaker. It’s difficult to argue with the success he enjoyed by tempering his natural style but watching highlights of him in full flow as a precocious teenager, an unavoidable sense of what might have been remains.

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