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Mikel John Obi: from rough diamond to lump of coal

12th April, 2011

In the past seven days I have come across two articles from very different sources suggesting Fernando Torres’s Chelsea blues can be blaimed, at least in part, on his new club’s failure to play to his strengths. Both Miguel Delaney at Eircom, and Jonathan Wilson in the Guardian’s Question feature, suggest that Torres operates best as a lone striker with a creative force behind him. At Liverpool he had both Xabi Alonso as a deep-lying playmaker and Steven Gerrard further forward to play the ball into space to exploit his’s speed and ability to gather the ball at pace. Chelsea, particularly with Deco and Michael Ballack gone, Frank Lampard out of form, and Josh McEachran not considered ready for regular first-team action, lack a player with the vision to make the best use of Torres’s assets.

Or do they? One of my greatest frustrations as a fan of African football has been seeing the way in which Mikel John Obi has been cruelly transformed from potential Zidane into Makelele-lite. Six years ago Mikel was one  of the stars of the World Youth Championship. An elegant, nimble-footed creative midfielder always looking to play the ball forward, he guided Nigeria to the final and finished with the Silver Ball as the tournament’s second-best player, pipped at the post only by a certain Lionel Messi.

At the time Mikel’s promise seemed virtually limitless. After my previous post it does perhaps seem a little disingenuous to argue that on the basis of a fantastic set of performances at a youth tournament the young midfielder was destined to blossom into one of the best of his generation in his position. However my grievance is very much based on the fact that throughout his career in England Mikel has not played in his genuine position. He has instead been shunted from the apex of the midfield to its base. I wasn’t able to find much video evidence of Mikel’s previous creative excellence on Youtube, but this compilation from the World Youth Championship 6 years ago should provide some indication of his potential:

So what happened at Chelsea? Even during the tug of war between the London club and Manchester United, who at one stage believed themselves the Nigerian’s legitimate employers, Mikel was being likened in the English press to players best known for their powers of improvisation, such as Eric Cantona. Perhaps it was his misfortune to arrive at Chelsea at a time when Lampard was at the height of his powers and even a player with the creative talent of Joe Cole wasn’t guaranteed a place in the starting line-up. Moreover, José Mourinho, Chelsea’s manager at the time, favoured a narrow midfield, with creativity coming primarily from two wide forwards. With Claude Makélélé already well into his thirties at the time of Mikel’s arrival, and the very mobile Michael Essien often deployed further up the field, perhaps it was natural that the physically imposing but less energetic figure of Mikel was only likely to cement a place in the first team as the veteran Frenchman’s understudy.

I am not convinced. I feel that Mikel was the victim of a tendency in European football over the past decade to look at footballers of African descent in purely physical terms. We see West Africa as the source of the genes of most top sprinters and heavyweight boxers and think therefore that that is where we must go if we want a player who is extremely quick, extremely strong, or both. Even reputable sources such as the BBC fall for such facile arguments. Here is the BBC’s Piers Edwards reporting on the preponderance of West Africans amongst the candidates for African footballer of the year:

The BBC shortlist for the 2010 African Footballer of the Year has underlined West Africa’s dominance of such awards – because around three-quarters of winners of both the BBC and Confederation of African Football (Caf) accolades hail from the region.

Great names stand out: Jay-Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu (Nigeria), Abedi Pele and Michael Essien (Ghana), Ivorian Didier Drogba, and Roger Milla and Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon) to name but a few.

Liberia’s George Weah, meanwhile, is the only African to be crowned Fifa World Player of the Year.

Weah also won the BBC award in 1995 and this year, another West African will join him – with Drogba and Eto’o joined on the shortlist by Yaya Toure, Asamoah Gyan and Andre ‘Dede’ Ayew.

And it’s not just a matter of a few talented individuals – look at the results and you will also see that West Africa’s footballing pre-eminence is unquestionable:

Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana are Africa’s only ever World Cup quarter-finalists; Nigeria and Cameroon are the continent’s sole winners of Olympic gold, while Nigeria and Ghana share six Fifa world titles at U17 and U20 level.

So what explains this superiority?

“Such dominance always comes down to genetics and environmental arguments,” sports scientist Tim Noakes told me on the line from Cape Town.

“West Africans are bigger and stronger than the rest of the continent – with the world’s best sprinters originating from the area.”

“East Africans are of course the distance runners – with a much smaller, lighter frame and the southern and northern Africans largely share that build.

“But West Africans’ physical attributes would mean nothing unless there’s also the right environment and sportsmen train hard.”

A very curious argument. By this definition, West Africans should be dominating football not only in Africa, throughout the world. Not even the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Germany should have any hope of keeping up with Nigeria and Cameroon when it comes to trophy hauls. Yet Nigeria and Cameroon aren’t perennial World Cup finalists. Why ever not? This is part of the problem. It is perfectly acceptable to look at Africans as impressive physical specimens, while at the same time implicitly their intellectual potential. The African player is one who affects matches through his remarkable physicality rather than through his exceptional creativity. He is a bully and not a thinker. The role of European clubs is to provide the right environment for these muscular supermen to reach their full potential.

What has happened is the suffocation of creativity in African football in general and West

The original Dimitar Berbatov: Nwankwo Kanu

African football in particular. Three of the names Morgan lists, Abedi Pele, Jay-Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu, were creative players of a sort we so rarely see coming from West Africa nowadays. Kanu in particular, though he was very tall, was neither physically robust nor particularly quick. The player most like him perhaps in European football today is probably Dimitar Berbatov. Both are elegant, graceful strikers adept at dropping deep to draw defenders out of position in order to play in onrushing teammates, and possessing the exceptional close control necessary to wriggle away from oppenents who mark too tightly. Neither is a player who relies on pace or brute force but rather height, skill and no small degree of savoir faire. I very much doubt that in the current climate we’ll see too many players in that mould coming out of Nigeria now, and not because of any genetic dispositon.

Nor will we see many like Jay-Jay Okocha, another skilful, bewitching midfielder who surely had more in common with Juan Román Riquelme than Michael Essien or Yaya Touré. Even Abedi Pele, who was known much more for his skill at close quarters  than his pace, would probably have been converted into a speedy winger were he a promising youngster now, much like what is happening to his son André Ayew at Marseille.

It is easy to look at a list of top African players and, like Piers Edwards, jump to conclusions about West African physical supremacy. What Mr Edwards is not doing is asking why players such as Michael Essien are being selected at youth level. If clubs around the world are looking to Africa to produce physically strong players, then it stands to reason that early physical developers are going to be picked ahead of late ones.  Then, those who have been selected for their physical precocity are going to be encouraged to play in a fashion that accentuates those physical attributes. In other words Michael Essien is not going to be taught to play like Jay-Jay Okocha. And Jay-Jay Okocha, were he breaking into football now, would likely be taught to play more like Claude Makélélé.

Jay-Jay Okocha. The last of the great West African playmakers?

Which brings us back to Mikel Jon Obi. Gareth Southgate, in a recent interview with the Guardian’s David Conn, laments English football’s failure to raise young players with the technical skills to match the world’s best. He cites Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes and Paul Gascoigne as ‘”geniuses” who came through despite the weaknesses of the English grass-roots and coaching structures’. The same argument could be applied to Mikel. Earlier in his career Mikel was a genius who defied the ever-increasing tendency of West African football to produce machines of men for the European market. However his revolutionary spirit was soon extinguished on his arrival in England.

If there is currently no African player who can be likened to a Lionel Messi or a Xavi Hernández, it is not because African football naturally favours strength over skill, but rather because strength is a commodit the west feels it can more readily mine in Africa. For flair it can look either within Europe or to South America. The Guardian’s Paul Doyle last year wrote a piece on the clipping of Mikel’s wings. He quotes Samson Siasia, the coach who supervised Nigeria’s run to the World Youth Championship final in 2005:

“Chelsea destroyed the player Mikel once was,” Siasia says, groaning. “They did a lot of damage to Nigerian football. Here was a young, enterprising midfielder who was going to be like Jay-Jay Okocha. He was about opening up defences, not protecting them.”

Could we imagine a Kaká or a Javier Pastore suffering such treatment? At the time of Paul Doyle’s article it seemed that Carlo Ancelotti and his assistant Ray Wilkins were intent on reawakening the dormant spirit of creativity in Mikel. Wilkins has sinced departed and Ancelotti may soon do likewise. There remains hope, nevertheless, that with the right coaching Mikel might re-emerge, if not as the Riquelme like conduit he once was, as a deep-lying playmaker in the mould of a Xabi Alonso or an Angela Pirlo, the latter a player with whose qualities Ancelotti is of course very familiar. However the damage may have already been done. If Mikel is to improve he may have to leave Chelsea for a club where the pressure is lighter and the scrutiny less intense. A club where he can, in relative peace, be allowed to blossom into creator rather than a destroyer.

Mikel’s fluid movement and broad range of passing, had its development not been interrupted, would not have been out of place in Spanish football. The irony is that he can’t put these skills to use to help a Spanish striker who is of a mould we have come to see as more classically Nigerian. The broader shame, beyond the stagnation of his career, is that had Mikel been allowed to develop into the player he seemed to be becoming six years ago, he might have helped to shatter the mould into which African players are not constantly cast. He might have reminded western audiences of the magic of Kanu, Okocha and Abedi Pele and, as winners are often copied, inspired a generation of players who could be considered their worthy successors. 24 this month, Mikel, if he is brave enough to make a move and find a coach willing to trust his talent, is still young enough to, if not become a superstar, remind us that Africans, even ones from the west of the continent, can control matches with skill and enterprise and not just speed and strength.

  1. Disagree on Mikel. The reason he set the youth championships on fire is that he had developed ahead of the other players and was better than all the other 16/17/18 year olds, not a huge pool of players. Once he got into the big wide world of football, turns out he is a good player but not great as many thought he would be. He is slow, both physically and mentally, meaning he has struggled to cement his place as a regular. Also he cannot score to save his life – so further forward is another issue. he has at times been excellent for Chelsea but at other times awful. He just hasnt developed and is not good enough to play further forward in a more attacking role. lastly he is f*cking lazy!

    • I think it’s certainly fair to suggest that Mikel may have matured physically before his peers, and so gained a temporary physical advantage over them. However, I would suggest that physical and technical development are two different things, and that Mikel’s technique, which was very good, was not only not allowed to develop further but also hindered by his forced reinvention as a Makelele-like figure.

      That said, youth level isn’t always the best indicator of future potential. There must be countless players who looked good early on in their career only to stall completely. Perhaps you’re right and Mikel did flatter to deceive early on. I’m just not convinced that he was given enough opportunity to play in his most natural position on his arrival in England. Even if he hadn’t gone on to be a star, I think he could have been a much more constructive player than the one he currently is. I suppose we may never have a definitive answer on this one.

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