Holding midfielder Jon Obi Mikel has picked up a lot of stick lately, some of it from me. With Michael Essien's return to full fitness, many of us assumed that he, and not Mikel, would be the midfield anchor, and their inclusion together in every lineup since the Charity Shield has been somewhat surprising. What's making things even more interesting is that Essien is occupying a relatively advanced role on the pitch, rather than the Claude Makelele spot we're more used to seeing. Initial questions regarding Carlo Ancelotti's wisdom in fielding both his first-team holding player and his backup in one lineup appear to have been misguided - there's only one central defensive midfielder on the pitch for the Blues these days, and that's Mikel.
I don't like breaking up perfectly good bands of players into more complicated notation, but Chelsea's 4-3-3 is probably better described as a 4-(1-2)-3, with the advanced players (Frank Lampard and Michael Essien, so far) providing most of the central linkup play while Mikel holds position in front of the defence. This is not an obvious solution to Chelsea's team selection, and many would suggest that the Blues are better off fielding Essien deeper and deploying new acquisition Yossi Benayoun ahead - I'll leave questions about Ramires Santos do Nascimento for after I've seen him play. However, the slightly unorthadox lineup is what Carlo Ancelotti's been going with, which leaves us with a question: Why would he do this?
There's little doubt that Michael Essien is the best all-around footballer on the team, and probably in the Premier League. He's a marvelous destroyer in the centre of the field who can push the entire team forward with a penetrating run. His vision and passing ability are both excellent tools that are rarely mentioned, and his technical skill is a thing of joy, especially from a man built like an angry rhino. Essien has the ability to act as an attacking dynamo, Chelsea's less cultured and more visceral* response to Barcelona's Xavi Hernandez. However, he can't do that if he's also the holding player, as the defensive responsibilities associated with such a position keep him occupied in undesirable areas of the pitch for a creator.
If he is liberated and plays higher up the field, we might see the best of both worlds from Essien, who could become an irrepresable attacking dynamo who tracks back when the team's in trouble and helps break up opposing attacks. The key, then, is finding a player who can play in his old position without being so much of a downgrade that the impact of playing Essien alongside Lampard higher up the pitch is lost. An ageing Michael Ballack did not impress as a holding player last season, and was sent packing on a free transfer to Bayern Leverkusen. Ramires has been brought into the squad, presumably as competition, but it really does appear that Ancelotti is completely comfortable with Jon Obi Mikel as his holding player. It is that confidence which may be the key to getting the most out of Michael Essien.
Mikel, however, is more than just some sort of bolt-cutter with which to set his more acclaimed team-mate free. He's also on his way to making good on the promise that led to Chelsea and Manchester United getting embroiled in one of the weirder transfer sagas of our time for his services as an 18-year-old. The problem is that he's really not very impressive. He just makes ho-hum tackles, wins ho-hum ariel duels, and plays ho-hum passes, spectacular assist vs. Wigan aside. But when he's compared against some of the best players in the country, he holds his own.
Did you know that Jon Obi Mikel was the only midfielder in the league last year to have a better pass completion rate than Paul Scholes? It wasn't simply because he's playing easy balls back to his centre backs, either; his accuracy in the final third was also higher than the United talisman's. Per data analysis firm Opta, Mikel's pass completion rate for the 09/10 season was an astonishing 89.8%, while he added almost five tackles per game, that figure also significantly above average. He's almost as good in the air as a defender, which is an odd trait for a midfield player, but one that serves to severely boost his value as a midfield shield.
Jon Obi Mikel is turning into one of those players who does almost all of the little things right, but makes one or two obvious mistakes a match, and it's to my embarrassment that I didn't dig deeper into the numbers nor the expert opinions sooner, preferring instead to simply yell at the guy. On first viewing of the Wigan match, for example, I thought that Mikel had a relatively mediocre match. However, upon re-watching and then looking at Guardian's Chalkboards, I've had to revise my opinion. Let's look at his passes first.
Figure 1: Jon Obi Mikel's passes at Wigan, 8/21/2010. Courtesy Guardian Chalkboards
The amazing thing about this chart is that it undersells how accurate Mikel was with his passing: That 48th minute 'incomplete pass' actually found its way to the intended target anyway, albeit via deflection as Mauro Boselli came hard to make a tackle after Lampard had put his teammate in severe danger of losing the ball. Shortly afterwards came the astonishing 60-yard pass to Nicolas Anelka which resulted in Chelsea's second goal of the match. All in all, Mikel completed passes at a 95.6% clip, an outstanding figure, especially considering the team's ball retention problems in the first half. He also dominated the air in front of Chelsea's box, challenging for four headers and clearing three, and while his tackling wasn't perfect that's not an excuse to knock down his play.
In the West Bromwich Albion match, Mikel was slightly less accurate with his passing but also had more opportunities to play the ball, Chelsea being under relatively little pressure all match. This enabled him to forgo all of the tackling business and simply receive and pass the ball, and Mikel ultimately completed just ten fewer passes than Scholes did in his match against Newcastle that weekend. The United man won raves for his performance, and he was certainly a dominant force in the final third against Newcastle's defenders that Mikel could never claim to be, but for a man who is supposed to be a midfield destroyer, Mikel did himself proud against one of the finest passers in the country.
Figure 2: Paul Scholes's passes against Newcastle United in the first week of the season compared to Jon Obi Mikel's vs. West Bromwich Albion. Courtesy Guardian Chalkboards
Mikel, then, is not just a placeholder for this team. He's a defensive midfielder with that rare ability to play the ball, enabling Chelsea to both play Michael Essien forward (but close enough to retain the double pivot) and avoid deploying a playmaker alongside the midfield destroyer. Mikel's never going to be the pure defensive wall of Makelele, nor will he develop into a Xabi Alonso style distributor, but those two combined would be something approaching the greatest footballer ever to live, so that would be expecting too much. Instead, we have a holding midfielder who is stepping out of Essien's shadow as a player who can both defend and set the Blues on their way to more goals. And I think that's pretty neat.
*And less good. Duh.