John Obi Mikel: How to play the holding midfield role

Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel reveals the secret to playing the holding midfield role, his toughest opponent and how to keep a no.10 at bay

You’ve spent your whole career playing in front of the back four - which players do you believe are the masters of this position?

It’s called the Makelele role for a reason. Claude was just so good in that position and made it his own - he brought it to everyone’s attention how important it could be. It wasn’t the position I wanted to play growing up, but when I came to Chelsea, [Jose] Mourinho saw me playing there, and it worked. I changed my position and he saw that I could be good there. I’ve done it for 11 years now. But Claude was my role model, and I was young when I started, so he was the one I admired. I’m very honoured and happy to have played a season with him, I learned so much in that year before he retired. 

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Defensive midfielders rarely get the headlines - do you think you need to have a selfless personality to be able to play that role?

I do think you have to be selfless. It’s a position that you play where you are open to a lot of criticism from fans, who maybe don’t see all the work you do. They come to the stadium to see the ball go into the back of the net. But we don’t do that. It’s a position that you can play well without actually touching the ball, because it’s all about positioning and coverage. You cover for the back four, the midfield, everyone. You keep the balance of the team. I did initially want to play further forward, and getting forward is something I love to do, but I think defensive midfield worked out suiting me very well.

How important is positional sense for a defensive midfielder?

It’s all about positioning and coverage, that is the key to playing it well. The manager can see the job that you do even when you don’t touch the ball, because the way you play it keeps the side in shape. That’s the good thing – your manager and your team-mates acknowledge what you do, even if not everyone can see it. 

 

How deep should a holding midfielder operate?

It depends on the team you are playing and the tactic that your manager wants. If you want to play deep, by the edge of the box, you have to be very close to your centre-backs. Otherwise you’ll leave a big hole, with lots of space for the opposition to work in. If you’re playing that deep, you’ll need your midfielders closer as well. This will enable you to stay compact. However, if you’re pressing, then the defenders have to come forward with me, so it’s best for them to be quite close, too. Everyone has to press together – including the midfielder and the strikers - otherwise you’ve got holes. 

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Are you responsible for covering the full-backs to enable them to attack?

Yes, of course. You have to cover everybody! It’s a huge part of the job. In a way, our job is to cover everyone on the pitch. If the full-back attacks and is out of position, you need to be there. You cover and jump positions. But that requires a midfielder to cover you, too, so it’s a team effort. It’s a difficult and complicated position, and you really do have to learn it and be willing to sacrifice yourself for the team. That’s your job. 

As a holding midfielder, do you prefer to play short or long passes?

It depends on the team you are playing. I’m happy to do either, but it depends who is in front of you. Do they want to run? When I get it, are they running? Or do they want the ball at their feet, like most of the players at Chelsea now? You have someone like Eden Hazard, who is quick, but he wants it at his feet. So you have to adapt. If they’re not going to run onto a long pass when you kick it, there is no point. Eden is great for starting attacks, but he wants it to feet. Play according to whoever you have around you. At the moment, we favour short passes, Barcelona style. I’m happy with that. 

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How do you adapt your game against a no.10 who drops deep and puts you under pressure?

If they come deep, then you know behind you there are two more midfielders, so there’s space for the striker, because the other team won't play with a holding midfielder. That’s where the opposition need defenders to carry the ball and try to bypass me. So you need to be aware of that and try to drag the no.10 out of the way and hope the ball goes straight to your striker or midfielders. 

Who are the best No.10s you’ve played against?

I think Alessandro Del Piero was the best. I played against him a couple of times when he was at Juventus. He was close to retirement, but he just was so clever. He was finding space behind me every time to get the ball. I’d think ‘I’ve got him’ but then he’d just do something. I was inexperienced, he was very experienced, and he was just too clever for me. I was trying to beat him with energy, but he could beat me with his head. 

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You’ve played under Jose Mourinho, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Carlo Ancelotti – did they all expect different things from you?

There was a massive difference. Scolari wanted me to express myself the most. Under him, and Ancelotti and [Roberto] Di Matteo, I played some of my best football. Jose is all about balance. If I’m in his team, that’s what I’m doing, and that’s fine by me. 

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