IN Mikel’s third season at Chelsea, he had a third different manager to play under. This meant different tactics, different requirements of him, and the need to win over another big name boss. The man appointed was World Cup winning coach, Luis Felipe Scolari, known affectionately as “Big Phil”. Would the 59 year old, whose famous Brazil team featured very attacking wingbacks and often two defensive midfielders, go with Mikel in that role, or would Michael Essien or a new signing get the nod?
Chelsea’s two major signings that summer were Deco and José Bosingwa, both players Scolari knew very well from his time as Portugal’s manager. Both would have a serious effect on the holding role. Deco was a number 10 who could also play as part of the midfield 3. This would mean him competing with Ballack, Lampard and Essien for two positions. For this reason, there was every chance that Essien would be pushed in to a deeper role in midfield. Bosingwa’s signing also meant that Essien would be less likely to feature at right back, as he had done under Avram Grant.
Scolari started the season with a 4321 shape. The two wider forwards played very narrow off a lone striker. Initially, Joe Cole and Deco played those roles, meaning three other central midfield spots were available. Any and all width was provided by Bosingwa on the right and Ashley Cole on the left. As you can imagine, this put enormous responsibility on the defensive midfielder. Whether it was Mikel or Essien who got the nod as first choice in that position, they would need to be extremely tactically aware, whilst also having to cover a lot of ground, often in the wide areas.
The season started with a brilliant 4-0 win against Portsmouth. Deco and Ballack had superb games, and Mikel was very good in the holding role. Essien was injured, so this was no real indication of who Scolari would prefer in that role in the longer term. Mikel picked up a knee injury in the following week of training, so missed the next two league games. In a 1-0 win at Wigan, Essien returned in the holding role. However, for the Tottenham game, Essien was pushed forward in to a more advanced midfield role, with Juliano Belletti playing as the defensive midfielder. Scolari had remembered Belletti starting his career in Brazil in that position, and the Brazilian did a very decent job in that role. Unfortunately, Michael Essien suffered a very serious injury to his anterior cruciate ligament playing for Ghana against Libya. It would rule him out for around 6 months.
With Essien injured, Chelsea were short in the defensive midfield position all-of-a-sudden. Scolari moved to sign 33-year old former Brazilian international, Mineiro, who had been a free agent after his release 4 months earlier by Hertha Berlin. Big Phil spoke very highly of him:
He is a player that I need because I lost Michael Essien for six months and I only have one midfielder like him, Mikel.
I say to fans of Chelsea, if they remember Makelele, Mineiro is the same. Good positionally, and a very good marker.
This would at least ease the burden on Mikel somewhat, as he could not play such a demanding role for months on end, especially after the rudimentary, old-fashioned preseason Scolari had put the squad through.
Unfortunately, Mineiro never got up to genuine match fitness, and relieved almost none of the burden on Chelsea’s young Nigerian. Of the next 39 games in all competitions, Mikel started 37. The two games he didn’t start were a League Cup win against Portsmouth (Belletti was the DM) and a Carling Cup game against Burnley. Mineiro started that game, but Mikel was introduced at half-time, and played a total of 75 minutes after the game went in to injury time. Mineiro moved forward after Mikel’s introduction. Unfortunately, it was Mikel who missed the crucial spot-kick as Chelsea were eliminated by Burnley after the game had gone to penalties.
In that 39 game run, Mikel had just 335 minutes off the pitch. Despite delivering numerous top performances, by December he was completely burnt out, and as the form of such a key part of the midfield faltered, so did the results of the team. This eventually cost Scolari his job. Interestingly, Mikel played 11 minutes in central defence in this period after John Terry was sent off at Everton.
Enter Guus Hiddink. A fourth Chelsea manager for Mikel, and the second season in a row where he would need to impress a new manager mid-season.
Initially, the Dutchman favoured Mikel (as mentioned earlier, he had very little alternative). However, in Hiddink’s fifth game in charge, Michael Essien returned from injury. After making his comeback by replacing Mikel for the final 26 minutes of a 2-0 FA Cup win at Coventry, Essien was thrust straight back in to the starting lineup for a trip to Juventus. Surprisingly, the Ghanaian was picked on the right of a 5-man midfield, and got himself on the scoresheet. For the next weekend’s game at home to Manchester City, Mikel finally got a deserved rest. However, it was Michael Ballack who dropped in to the defensive midfield position, with Essien retained further forward. Again, the returning midfielder bagged himself a goal. Ballack had impressed in midfield, and retained his place ahead of Mikel for a poor 1-0 defeat at Tottenham. The goal came from a low shot from the edge of the Chelsea box. Mikel’s protection of the back four was missed.
This signaled a change of shape in midfield. Hiddink decided to switch to a 4231 formation, with two players designated with protecting the defence, and Frank Lampard further forward. Unfortunately for Mikel, Hiddink’s preferred double pivot was Ballack-Essien. This meant Mikel was an unused sub for 3 big games – both legs of the Champions League Quarter Final tie against Liverpool, and an FA Cup semi-final win at Wembley, against Arsenal.
With 8 goals conceded in 3 games, Mikel returned to the side for league action, and got the nod to start the Champions League Semi Final first leg against Barcelona in the Nou Camp. Hiddink switched Essien back to his defensive role on the right flank, as he had done for the earlier game in Turin. Mikel ended up giving a masterclass of defensive midfield play, as he regularly made vital interceptions, and held off Barcelona’s famous pressing with brilliant body strength under pressure. This was one of his very best games so far in a Chelsea shirt as a very good 0-0 draw was achieved.
For the return leg, a more attacking lineup was picked, and Mikel found himself back among the substitutes. With Michael Essien then given a little breather after the rigours of recent games on a player who had missed 6 months of action, Mikel played all of the remaining league games. The major test of his standing in the squad, would be if he made the side for the FA Cup final. With Ballack’s form taking a slight dip after his world-class display in the return leg against Barcelona, Mikel got the nod for the big Wembley date. He gave an excellent display as Chelsea lifted the FA Cup by beating Everton 3-1. Despite facing a bigger fight for his place under Hiddink, Mikel had very complementary things to say about the Dutchman:
He knows how to talk to each player and get the best out of him. Sometimes he kicks you up the arse and wakes you up. And he brought something back that had been lacking – the fighting spirit, the need to do the dirty work.
Mikel ended the season with a total of 49 appearances – 46 starts and 3 appearances from the bench.
With Hiddink’s contract expiring, in came Carlo Ancelotti for the following season; himself a former defensive midfielder of the highest order. Ancelotti would surely look to bring Andrea Pirlo with him from AC Milan. Would John Obi Mikel face increased competition for his spot yet again? Find out in Part Three.