Michael Cox: How John Obi Mikel again showed why Guus gives him all the fuss
Chelsea’s 2-2 draw at home to West Brom on Wednesday night was an entertaining, if fairly unmemorable game. It essentially confirmed what we thought about both sides: Chelsea look better under Guus Hiddink but still lack confidence and are conceding poor goals, while West Brom are a plucky, physical side capable of outmuscling technical opponents.
Indeed, it’s worth remembering that this is, by Chelsea’s standards, a physically unremarkable team. During Hiddink’s previous reign at Chelsea, in 2008/09 he was able to call upon a powerful set of players including the likes of Michael Ballack, Michael Essien and Frank Lampard in midfield. When things weren’t going well for Chelsea in a technical sense, they were capable of overpowering the opposition.
Obi the one
Hiddink was a great fan of Mikel in his previous spell at Chelsea, and it’s become clear that the Nigerian is now firmly ahead of Nemanja Matic
That’s no longer so easy for Chelsea. With Cesc Fabregas and Oscar forming part of the midfield trio last night, there’s been a gradual change to an entirely different type of footballer in the engine room. That is partly why Hiddink has turned to John Obi Mikel in the deep-lying role: in a team of diminutive, creative talents, the Nigerian provides the balance.
MIKEL'S LAST FIVE SEASONS
(Premier League and Europe only)
- 2015/16 12 apps (6 starts)
- 2014/15 20 apps (7 starts)
- 2013/14 31 apps (15 starts)
- 2012/13 31 apps (26 starts)
- 2011/12 31 apps (22 starts)
Hiddink was a great fan of Mikel in his previous spell at Chelsea, and it’s become clear that the Nigerian is now firmly ahead of Nemanja Matic in the pecking order. Matic, off form for about a year now, is clearly a better player than Mikel if both are at their peak: the Serbian is more effective at sliding forward into the attacking third before hitting a dangerous pass, and covers more ground defensively too.
Clearly lacking confidence in recent months, however, Matic appears unable to adjust to play a purely defensive game. That, of course, is where Mikel comes in.
There’s something telling about the positions of Mikel’s tackles last night – they weren’t all successful, granted, but they take place in a solid position right along the spine of the pitch. His two interceptions occurred in slightly wider zones, but overall he simply patrols the centre, holding his position ahead of the back four.
That’s what Hiddink wants. Mikel’s strength means Chelsea can get away with using two playmakers in the same midfield, and his positional sense allows them freedom to attack.
“He played very well, as he also did in the previous games,” Hiddink said of Mikel after the recent 3-0 win over Crystal Palace. “He’s the ideal player to bring balance to the team.
“If the team is not willing to defend well or have the right balance then you concede a lot of goals. I thought John Obi can be one of the key figures in getting the balance back. On top of that the talented players can then explore their qualities.”
Last night’s game was Mikel’s 20th for Hiddink – and the midfielder remains unbeaten under the Dutchman, with 15 wins and five draws
What Mikel doesn’t offer, of course, is particularly good distribution. One of the more puzzling things about his career is why he often showcases beautiful long passes for his national team, but remains entirely cautious at club level – even under attack-minded coaches.
For Hiddink, though, the careful distribution is precisely the expectation. “He's good in short passing,” he says. “I don't expect and I don't ask him to make the decisive final pass. He can but no, we let the other players do that.”
Compared to Matic’s most recent league game, Mikel barely plays the ball into the final third.
And this is, in general, the trend for the Premier League’s traditional big clubs in the deep-lying midfield role. A few years ago there was a shift towards deep-lying passers, but at the moment the likes of Francis Coquelin, Eric Dier, Muhamed Besic and Mikel – all predominantly defensive-minded players – have emerged as first choices in the holding role. It frees others to attack, but means less invention from deep.
Interestingly, last night’s game was Mikel’s 20th for Hiddink – and the midfielder remains unbeaten under the Dutchman, with 15 wins and five draws. Mikel might not win you many games directly, but can prevent you from losing. At the moment, that’s exactly what Chelsea need.