By Sanish “Ed” Fernandez
If you’re an uninitiated observer of the game, you might be forgiven for confusing John Obi Mikel with Michael Essien.
Both are named Michael, or a variant of it. Both hail from African nations, and share the common fortune of playing for one of the leading clubs in England.
They’re both powerfully built, and were originally billed attacking-minded midfielders even if they’ve been molded into something else.
Both underwent these radical transformations under the watchful eyes of Jose Mourinho, and have played in tandem with Chelsea’s talisman Frank Lampard. And both their fathers have featured in news headlines, even if for vastly different reasons.
That’s where the similarities end.
Michael Essien is seen as an undisputed star, while Mikel – for all his contributions – leaves you with that feeling that he’s still a work in progress.
Four years separate the two stars, with Essien being the older; while it is conceivable that Mikel could go on to achieve more career silverware than Essien, he is unlikely to be spoken of in the same breath as the Ghanaian.
An examination of the two players is therefore, a study in contrasts and a story of how two men reinvented themselves.
Essien joined Chelsea FC from Lyon on 14th August 2005, after a protracted transfer saga that culminated in the West London side forking out a then record sum of £24.4 million for the midfielder.
Essien’s robust presence in the midfield saw him develop a natural partnership with Frank Lampard, and Mourinho was quick to discover he could use his African star in a defensive midfielder’s role and as an under-study to Claude Makalele.
Essien lacked the precise passing instinct and orchestra-conducting skills of the underrated Makalele, but his defensive mindedness and ability to stay on his feetmeant he served as an additional line of defense for Chelsea’s at-times beleagured back four.
Even when Chelsea went in for a 4-man midfield formation with Lampard and Essien in the centre, it was always the latter who was expected to shoulder the defensive responsibilities.
Essien may not have set the scoresheets alight, but he soon became a favorite with both the media and the crowds : the 2006 BBC African footballer of the year and Chelsea’s Player of the Year (2006 -07).
Essien’s importance to the Hiddink regime was best exemplified with that tactical masterclass he pulled on Gerrard.
Taken off early in the previous game against Newcastle United, presumable to save him for later, Essien returned in a defensive midfielder’s role to drive Gerrard into a corner.
The Liverpool legend huffed and puffed all night, but the Chelsea man was always a step ahead, and on the night in a different league altogether.
He’d prove to be just as crucial in the semi-finals against Barcelona, scoring a scorcher that Chelsea fans would go on to honor as the goal of the 2009-10 season.
Even in Mourinho’s absence, Essien lived up to his master’s expectations – proving he could and would play just about any role and position the team needed him to.
After 3 knee injuries in 4 years sidelined him in a new-look Chelsea midfield, Essien found a believer in Mourinho.
The Portuguese, in charge of Real Madrid, drafted his former midfield general into the side – first as a defensive midfielder, and then as the Spanish side’s preferred right-back.
As Mourinho returned to Chelsea, Michael Essien followed – with both icons lavishing praise on the each other.
They share a father-son relationship, as Essien proudly proclaimed without mentioning the strained relationship he shares with his own father.
Essien and Mourinho’s bond plays to both their strengths – Mourinho’s man managing abilities and Essien’s never-say-die loyalty.
Things couldn’t have been more different for John Obi Mikel.
His star rose as Essien’s declined, and he’s been widely credited with being an important cog in Chelsea’s midfield.
Mikel isn’t likely to feature in the headlines, and has never scored a goal for Chelsea in the Premier League, preferring to do the unsung dirty work in front of the back four. But John Obi Mikel has never seen the kind of adulation that greets every step Essien takes on the field.
Mikel’s fatal flaw is that he excites little passion from the Chelsea supporters. They’re more likely to recognize his contribution to the side in his absence, than when he’s on the ball.
His polar opposite David Luiz is the kind of player that forces you to have an opinion about him – charitable or otherwise; while Mikel’s the kind of player that gets True Blues to shrug their shoulders before offering a half-hearted acknowledgment of the Nigerian.
It may be hard to believe now, but John Obi Mikel was once football’s most highly-rated prospects. In 2005, at the FIFA World Youth Championships in Netherlands, John Obi Mikel was second only to Lionel Messi.
Let that sink in – the sight of Mikel falling only slightly short of the standards set by Messi. The Nigerian had to be content with the tournament’s Silver Ball, while the top prize went to Lionel Messi who only barely inched ahead of Mikel.
For a young player still in his formative years, the protracted transfer battle between Lyn Oslo, Manchester United and Chelsea would prove to be a sour reminder of how dangerous politics in football could be.
With Chelsea finally emerging on top, Mikel – who had earlier been presented holding up Manchester United’s #21 shirt – then proclaimed his heart had always been set on Chelsea. It’s easy to see, then, how Chelsea’s faithful may have unfairly seen him as fickle and perhaps not entirely a True Blue man at heart.
In Mikel, Mourinho saw a tall, strapping young man he could mould into being Makalele’s ideal replacement. That would prove to be a folly – one of Mourinho’s few – because it meant Mikel would rarely get an opportunity to hone or showcase his attacking prowess.
The defensive midfielder’s role isn’t something an attacking or central midfielder prizes; it’s a thankless job for the most part, and any adventurous instinct on the ball will be rewarded with the loss of possession and a potential shot on goal by the opposition.
A budding talent that once gave Messi a run for his money was now reduced to providing passes sideways, with a greater than 90% accuracy.
A poor first touch, an overlay cautious approach and a penchant for red cards in critical games meant Mikel was soon being seen as a stop-gap measure.
Mikel would reach his pinnacle under Carlo Ancelotti, playing an understated and underrated but pivotal role in Chelsea’s double-winning campaign.
Mikel had made his peace with his situation – he had given in to the system. After a bumpy start to the 2011-12 season in which his father was kidnapped and then released, Mikel gradually fell out of favor with Villas-Boas, as Oriol Romeu brought a spark to the team that the Nigerian seemed incapable of.
But as the going got tough, and Roberto di Matteo came in, Mikel got a new lease of life. He was pivotal as the team’s lone fixer in the the Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich.
Mikel had gone from being a potential fire-starter consuming defenses with sheer intensity, to being the fire-fighter at home putting out flames before they got too out of hand.
Ironically. his best performances for the team only served to doom him further. He was rumored to be on his way to Galatasaray to join forces with Drogba again, before the Turkish giants drafted Melo in.
Monaco continue to show interest in him, and Chelsea have the look of a team that might sell him if a decent offer is made.
And therein lies the difference: Essien is a crowd-pleaser who wears his heart on his sleeve, derives his strength from the glowing adoration of the stands.
Essien’s body will break before his spirit does, and he will bleed to ensure the grounds stay blue. Mikel strikes you as an impassive corporate executive laboring with one eye on the bottom line, and a broken spirit that dwells on what might have been.
He knows the loudest cheers aren’t reserved for him and the flash-bulbs don’t pop for him, but he goes in and gets the job done anyway. In many ways, that’s just as admirable.