John Obi Mikel: The Control Variable

In chemistry, there is something referred to as the control variable. Essentially, the control variable is what is kept the same throughout the experiment. It is not the primary concern in the experimental outcome and it is said that any change in a control variable in an experiment would invalidate the balance of dependent variables, thus skewing the results. This variable is also known as the constant variable or simply as the “control.”

When it comes to basic living, which primarily involves sleeping and waking up, we have two control elements, the Sun and the Moon, and these regulate essential existence. They dictate when we work, eat, sleep, and even party. Likewise in football, especially modern football, the element of control is becoming increasingly important as managers strive for a controlled attacking approach or a controlled defensive approach.

With teams like Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli, among others, being synonymous with controlled attacking styles of play, and with the likes of Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea being synonymous for controlled defensive sides, ‘control’ itself is at a premium. Several teams, such as Juventus and Sevilla, have oscillated between the two, becoming a hybrid of both styles. These teams need a player in the side that is an epitome of control, comfortable in possession, and assured without it.

These players usually play in the center of the pitch, they are the metronomes of their managers’ systems, they almost have a bird’s-eye-view of the pitch. Whether it be Fernandinho, Sergio Busquets, or Xabi Alonso, these players have linked defense and attack, controlled the system, but they’ve never quite gotten the praise they deserved. John Obi Mikel sits pretty in this A-list setup. He is regarded as the greatest non-hero of Chelsea’s most successful period, the control variable that allowed Chelsea’s flashier superstars to flourish and hog the limelight.

John Michael Nchekwube Obinna, popularly known as John Obi Mikel during his childhood days, was always known as a kid destined for greatness long before he even tasted stardom. Born to a civil servant and a trader, Mikel had the talent, the attitude, and the stamina, he just needed the opportunity.

It all started on a dusty football pitch in the Jos Metropolis Township Primary school, where he was first sighted by a rich football agent by the name of Alhaji Babawo Mohammed Adamu.

“I can say without any contradiction that I was the person that discovered him when he was just a kid. He was playing in the street close to my area,” said Adamu. “I called him and told him what I had seen in him.”

After being spotted by Adamu, Mikel was soon picked from a pool of over 3,000 young boys to play for the prestigious Pepsi football academy. He stood out to scouts and was later picked to play for in the top-flight side Plateau United, a club known for developing Nigerian internationals.

While he represented the country in the 2003 U-17 World Cup in Finland, his rise up the ladder would not gain any traction until the U-20 World Cup in the summer of 2005. Alongside Lionel Messi, Mikel was the breakout star of the tournament.

Argentina needed two penalties from ‘La Pulga’ to win the Final, but while Messi took home the Golden Ball, Mikel hoisted the Silver Ball on a rather disappointing night at the Galgenwaard Stadium. Mikel was instrumental to Nigeria’s run to the final, with all-encompassing displays in midfield against the likes of Holland, Morocco, and Brazil. Donning the number 9 jersey, Mikel was an attacking midfielder in this early stage of his career, but while Messi was the undisputed star of the tournament, Mikel’s talent shone brighter than the likes of Sergio Agüero, Cesc Fábregas and Radamel Falcao.

One could have been forgiven for thinking the two standout players of the tourney would go on to have similar careers, but while Mikel hasn’t gone on to dominate world football like the Argentine Ballon D’Or winner, it is a testament to his talent that most of his teammates never even went on to play top level football, and none of them, not even Bronze Ball-winning Taye Taiwo, would manage to establish a lasting legacy in Europe like Mikel did.

Mikel spent one more year with his club Lyn Oslo, before being swept into a transfer saga between Manchester United and Chelsea. Eventually, the scruffy boy from the Plateau State was set to ply his trade for José Mourinho’s Premier League winners. Mikel had impressed Mourinho in a training session in 2004, and now, he had finally gotten his man.

Mikel’s evolved style of play would go on to be a match made in heaven for Chelsea, but most importantly, for Mourinho. The ‘Special One’ is the master at controlled defending, and he would soon realize that Mikel was capable of being his lieutenant in the centre of the park. Mikel didn’t immediately play as a defensive midfielder for Chelsea, but due to certain absences in the team, Mourinho went on to try him in the position against Spurs in an FA Cup replay.

In that game, Mikel, while still raw, impressed with his defensive positioning, an intimidating ability in both man-marking and zonal marking, and torso strength that belied his years. His long and short-range passing also proved very useful as he recycled possession to his more attack-minded teammates, and he managed to slow down the tempo to his team’s pace all the while exuding tranquility in an area of the pitch clogged with traffic. Mourinho’s control experiment worked, yet another masterstroke. Mikel would go on to almost seamlessly fill Claude Makélélé’s boots when he left for Paris Saint-Germain.

As the control variable in football, you don’t put out the eye-catching performances that get the YouTube compilations or the highlight reels. Most of the time, because of the consistent 7/10 performances, the player becomes a victim of his own success and after a while, the fans get bored of the consistency and they fail to appreciate his importance. This was the story of Mikel at Chelsea.

Despite winning 10 trophies during his time in London, including the 2012 Champions League Final in which he put on a man-of-the-match performance against Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern Munich, Mikel was often overlooked as a player and a leader. The Nigerian did the dirty work so the likes of Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba could shine, and his leadership on and off the pitch was essential to Chelsea’s performances. He was often seen barking instructions to most of the team’s senior players, and despite his youth, he was always regarded with the respect an elder statesman may receive. 

“I could scream at Didier and Lamps,” said Mikel. “I was only 25 but they would respect and listen to me.”

Mikel was the stability in midfield, the brains behind the control, and the operator behind the machine, but he never got the credit that the likes of Xabi Alonso or Michael Carrick did for his intelligence. Season after season, manager after manager, Mikel continued to do a job for Chelsea with increasing frequency as Michael Essien succumbed to injury with greater regularity during the later years of his time at Chelsea. The Nigerian never had blips in form, he was almost never caught out of position, and he continued to put in a shift no matter who the manager.

With a passing accuracy average percentage of 89.93 percent in his time at Chelsea, it would be easy to say he only played simple and safe sideways passes. In fact, Mikel switched play with effortless cross-field passing, and although he was never Chelsea’s primary passer in midfield, he rarely gave the ball away with sloppy decision-making.

“When I am not 100% sure that a pass I am about to play will get to its destination, I won’t play it,” he said.

Mentally, Mikel was tougher than nails both on and off the pitch. Before the start of the 2011/12 season, Mikel once again displayed incredible mental strength as his father was abducted on August 10. While negotiations on his father’s release were ongoing in his home country, Mikel appeared for Chelsea in the first game of the season against Stoke at the Britannia Stadium and he even claimed his first Chelsea goal. Then manager André Villas-Boas, hailed Mikel’s mental toughness.

“Mikel has shown outstanding commitment and professionalism during this most difficult of times and the club will continue to offer its full support to him and his family.”

Nine months later, Mikel gave the performance of a lifetime against a Bayern midfield of Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Müller. He had the unenviable task of shadowing two of the best midfielders in Europe as well as shadowing the runs of one of the best raumdeuters in the world, but he was one of the best performers on the pitch. 

Mikel put in “a performance that I didn’t think he had in him,” said Jamie Carragher after the Final. “He was putting fires out everywhere.”

It is easy to overlook Mikel’s outstanding performances in the Premier League because it became almost second nature, but he consistently showed up against the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Spurs, and his levels never dropped, even against lower opposition.   

Mikel left Chelsea without much of the praise he deserved and his departure was almost anti-climactic. Antonio Conte’s appointment brought about some strange personnel and tactical decisions, with the likes of Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso becoming integral to the Italian’s plans. The summer arrival of N’Golo Kanté from Leicester meant Mikel was a casualty of the new regime. His slow, controlled style of play was frozen out of the Chelsea DNA as Conte opted to play on the fast break with his tried and trusted 3-4-3. Mikel left Chelsea for Tianjin TEDA in January, swayed by the loaded wage offers of the Chinese Super League.

Not only has he been reliably consistent for his club, but for country as well. Since his debut in 2005, Mikel has hardly ever shackled his national team duties. He played for them in the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in 2006 and 2008, and while he missed the 2010 World Cup due to injury, he was integral as Nigeria won the 2013 AFCON.

Mikel’s World Cup debut came in 2014 in an enviable midfield engine room alongside Oghenyi Onazi. He put in a man-of-the-match performance against Iran, but Nigeria eventually crashed out to France in the Round of 16, where Mikel was fouled routinely by France’s midfielders. He captained the Super Eagles in the 2016 Summer Olympics, winning the bronze medal, and he wore the armband again in 2018, as Nigeria failed to advance to the knockout round.

Mikel has played with several generations of Nigerian players and has never looked out of place with any of them. With 85 caps and counting for the Super Eagles, his importance to his team and ultimately his nation cannot be overemphasized. Just behind Nwankwo Kanu, Mikel is the second-most decorated Nigerian player of all time. And unlike many African players who are usually described as mere ‘pace and power,” Mikel was elegant on the ball for a living. Although he played mostly in attacking midfield for Nigeria, it was clear to see where his strengths lay and until he took it upon himself to demand the ball from the center backs, the Nigerian midfield always looked imbalanced, with Mourinho speaking about this during the 2018 FIFA World Cup…

“He’s a bad number 10 and a good number 6. Nigeria lost a good number 6 to get a bad number 10.”

Thus, his ability to control games and have a calming influence in the center midfield has been limited for the national team and his strengths may not have always been fully understood and utilized back home in Naija.

In 2013, fresh off his Champions League victory, Mikel had an unbelievable year for both club and country. Solid in holding midfield for Chelsea while almost simultaneously being an indelible all-round midfielder for Nigeria, he destroyed Yaya Touré and the Ivorians on the road to AFCON glory. In the Confederations Cup against Spain, while Nigeria lost 3-0, the general consensus was that Mikel was the best midfielder on the pitch ahead of Xavi and Iniesta. So good was his year that when Yaya was awarded African Player of the Year, and rightly so as he was incredible for City, it felt like a gut punch to all Nigerians who were fully expecting their man to edge the race.

With a career renaissance brewing at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough, his stock may not be rising with English football fans, but it’s certainly being appreciated. At 31, Mikel has been phenomenal since returning to England in January; in fact, he’s been too good for the Championship. His formerly languid style has now metamorphosed into majestic, controlled running. His economy of movement and finding the right pass at the right time, has excelled even more this time around. If Tony Pulis’ Boro accomplish promotion this season, he’ll once again be proving his worth in the Premier League in no time.

By: Muyiwa Adagunodo

Photo: Gabriel Fraga /