In the era of Hazard, Oscar and Moses, how relevant is John Mikel Obi to Chelsea?

The Nigerian international midfielder's game is about controlling the pace of the game with short and accurate passes and this will be why he will continue to find a starting spot
By Babajide Alaka | Deputy Editor

John Mikel Obi was undoubtedly an integral part of Chelsea FC's triumphant double trophy winning effort last season but the 'Billionaire's club', as largely referred to by supporters and despisers alike, quickly went to the transfer market to shore up the mid-section of the team which has seen the entrance of several star players such as Oscar, Eden Hazard, Victor Moses and Marko Marin.

Despite the loan exit of Ghanaian defensive stalwart Michael Essien, there are huge questions surrounding the ability of the Nigerian to hold a starting position in the middle of the pack.
A huge section of Chelsea supporters have had mixed emotions about the team's abilities to replicate the heroics of last season following the Community Shield defeat to Manchester City and the humiliating drubbing at the hands of Atletico Madrid during the Uefa Super Cup game. This has really made fans question the efficacy of the current system being run by coach Roberto Di Matteo. And as antecedents have shown this could essentially result in a change of on-field personnel.

Obi did not particularly shine in the season's opening game against the Premier League champions. He was responsible for several loose balls in the middle of the pack. Fortunately for him, none was directly responsible for any of the conceded goals. However, he was responsible for a largely incoherent midfield put on display by the Uefa Champions on the day.

Obi had been accused of not being particularly offensive-minded by a cross-section of the fans, constantly making more defensive passes than offensive and this criticism could be responsible for his change in tactics in the three league games this season, with the Nigerian midfielder making 62% more offensive passes so far in the league. 

One wonders if Obi would restructure his game play to retain relevance in this new Chelsea team that seeks to be more attack-minded in fulfilment of the wishes of the Russian owner. There are also questions as to the particular role that Obi would play in this new regime. Of course when one looks back at the Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas eras of 'radical attacking football', the bigger subject of the workability still remains questionable. If Chelsea would become another Barcelona or Swansea under Di Matteo still has its own huge question mark. But hopes as to if Obi will remain relevant perhaps lies in the answer to the latter question.

Not surprisingly, Mikel made a 100% pass completion ratio in the first half (33 of 33) of the team's league victory over Newcastle United and this highlights his strongest point. This ability is well stated by Soccernomics when it posited that “Most players are very active when they are aimed towards the opposition’s goal, in terms of high-intensity activity....Very few players are very strong going the other way.”

Obi does a fantastic job closing down spaces available for attacking opposition players and coupled with his ability to distribute the ball effectively, the Nigerian has stood himself out.

This was stated by teammate Frank Lampard.“His value to the team is measured by how his team mates talk about him and we all have nothing but high praise for him,” Lampard told recently.
“He does a lot of work for us in the holding role, keeps the ball moving for us. He's great at tackling, intercepting balls, winning balls, and has great feet. I think in the last two or three years he has improved greatly. He's a top player now,” Lampard concluded.

After the defeat to Atletico, Mikel however pointed out that he might also want his teammates to also learn this habit while on the pitch, pointing out quite rightly the necessity of teamwork while defending.
“It's the same job for everyone, it's the same role for me keeping the balance, keeping the shape, and it's a harder role this year,” Obi was quoted by the club's website.

Clearly Obi is not the player to score spectacular goals, scorchers, or make lung-bursting runs from deep midfield, but his unique ability to mould a midfield cannot be undermined. How he pulls his weight and ensures consistent performance would determine how long he stays relevant in Di Matteo's Chelsea line-up this season as they seek to re-enact the glory of the latter part of last season.

So as the club pursues a new playing philosophy, Obi will have to keep the Chelsea engine running smoothly without catching the eye – that is the Nigerian’s job and the simpler the better.

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