Chelsea fans recently watched Nigeria play during the Confederations Cup and wondered who the majestic, elegant playmaker in the number 10 shirt was. With his inventive range of passing, ability to cover ground, make tackles and interceptions, he pulled all the strings in a dangerously-looking attacking unit. 'He'd be a good signing for us,' Chelsea fans probably thought, in need as they are of that type of player in deeper midfield areas. And then the camera zooms in on his shirt. And it's John Obi Mikel.
John Obi Mikel
So why was he playing like that for Nigeria, but seems to have lost his way at Chelsea? Can he forge a future for himself under Jose Mourinho, or will he need to move on?
Mikel played in Brazil like the player Chelsea thought they had signed for £16m in 2006 when he was just 19 and has intermittently shown at Stamford Bridge. Since being at Chelsea he has changed from a buccaneering all-rounder to more of a defensive shield, and it doesn't really suit him. His defensive discipline and intelligence isn't his strong point. In his more restricted role as a defensive shield he isn't able to show off his athleticism. He is required to play a very simple passing game at Chelsea, always moving the ball on quickly and easily to his team-mates.
For Nigeria, he is the absolute fulcrum of the team, with freedom to exploit his physical gifts and show off the kind of creativity and passing that he seemed to have kept hidden at Chelsea. He's put himself firmly in the shop window with plenty of teams able to find use for him and his suddenly rediscovered talents.
But has he also forced his way into Jose Mourinho's thinking?
One of the few weaknesses at Chelsea is that they don't have a pure deep lying playmaker. Ramires is an athlete and Frank Lampard is able to grab goals and set a decent tempo. David Luiz has a nice range of passing, but doesn't yet utilise his talents in the way that a Pirlo, Xavi or Schweinsteiger does. Could this be where Mikel fits in again suddenly?
He's been so far off the radar to play this role for Chelsea that it is almost forgotten what abilities he has.
He did a good job in a playmaking role with a Nigeria side who showed exuberance and threat in attack. However, his skills are not really refined enough to play the role for Chelsea, and a fresh start makes more sense. It's very hard to say to the rest of the Chelsea squad that the player who used to be their shield is suddenly their main passing presence. Having played with him for several years, it's going to be too hard to change the mindset of the squad to go from trying to receive the ball from him to suddenly looking to pass to him.
Mikel needs to be signed to be the main man somewhere else. Galatasaray have been linked, but the transfer fee was ridiculous. There's no way Galatasaray can say on the one hand that Wesley Sneijder can be had for £16m and then immediately spend it on Mikel. Chelsea could probably demand something like £8m, though, which is a fair price for a player who hasn't consistently shown that he can do this role for a while at club level.
He probably needs to leave the Premier League for a slower environment. Series A would seem to be a perfect league for him where his physicality would be an advantage but the pace of the game is slower to give him more time.
Mikel really needs a fresh start and an opportunity to be the main man somewhere else. He does an OK job as a screening midfielder for Chelsea -- but no more. His defensive nous hasn't really improved so he isn't an optimum solution for the club. A move elsewhere, and a chance to show the kind of skill he showed in Brazil would suit him more.