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John Obi Mikel: Chelsea midfielder still unbeaten under Guus Hiddink
Last Updated: 05/02/16 6:13am
With Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel having extended his unbeaten record under Guus Hiddink to 25 games, Adam Bate examines his impressive record and the reasons for his success…
John Terry is Chelsea's captain, leader and legend and one of the definitions of leadership is making others better as a result of your presence. It's a hard one to identify in sport as it is in business but it's customary to examine results. It's here that John Obi Mikel might feel entitled to a claim.
The Nigerian midfielder's unbeaten record under Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink has become well documented in recent weeks and that sequence continued at Watford on Wednesday. Over two spells under the Dutchman, Mikel has gone unbeaten in 25 appearances for the Blues.
It's not been straightforward. The run has included shut outs away to Barcelona and Manchester United, while there have been wins at Arsenal seven years apart. The only game that Hiddink has lost so far as Chelsea boss came against Tottenham at White Hart Lane in 2009. Mikel was injured.
Mikel under Hiddink - First spell
There was another game that ended badly for Hiddink's Blues - Andres Iniesta's stoppage-time equaliser winning that year's Champions League semi-final for Barcelona. It wouldn't be a shock if the boss regrets leaving Mikel on the bench that day rather than having him shutting the Spaniard down.
John Obi Mikel has now started six Premier League games in a row for the first time since 2012.
So what is it about Mikel? At Vicarage Road, there were four tackles, two clearances and three interceptions to emphasise his influence. The 28-year-old was the only midfielder on the pitch to win possession of the ball more times than he surrendered it. It was classic Mikel.
The Premier League tracking data that records distance covered and sprints is not so remarkable, but perhaps there's some sense in that too. Protection for the back four is provided by his presence. As a result, mobility in midfield isn't always a virtue when it's vacating the position that's the problem.
Ostensibly, Nemanja Matic is the more capable player in many ways but Mikel's appreciation of the holding aspect of the holding-midfield role might make him, rather that the talented Serb, the man that Chelsea needed during their period of poor form earlier in the campaign.
Mikel's domination of this key central zone was particularly apparent in the recent 3-0 win at Crystal Palace, a game in which his name was chanted vociferously by the visiting supporters. "I don't think I've ever seen John Obi Mikel play so well," Graeme Souness told Sky Sports. "He bossed that area."
Hiddink, on the other hand, has seen it all before. "He's the ideal player to bring balance to the team," he said. "If the team is not willing to defend well, or hasn't got the right balance, then you'll concede a lot of goals. I think John Obi can be one of the key figures in bringing back that balance.
He's the ideal player to bring balance to the team.
Guus Hiddink on John Obi Mikel
"He reads the game very well, he knows where the strength of the opponent is and knows how to combat that. He has very good sense, he doesn't do it in a brutal way, he's very elegant. Someone who can defend so smoothly is very beautiful."
It's also effective. Since being restored to the starting line-up, Chelsea have kept four clean sheets in six games. That's as many as they managed in the previous 18 matches. Getting the basics right has been a feature of Hiddink's approach. He's kept things simple, and that's just how Mikel likes it.
"It's the way he communicates with the players and maybe that's what the players felt they didn't get from the previous manager," said Mikel in a surprise dig at former boss Jose Mourinho. "You need to speak to them and don't just ignore them because players like to be communicated to."
For the midfielder, the instructions are crystal clear now. "He's good in short passing," explained Hiddink. "I don't expect and I don't ask him to make the decisive final pass. He can but no, we let the other players do that. The talented players can then explore their qualities."
Mikel under Hiddink - Second spell
Mikel has the best passing accuracy of any Chelsea midfielder, finding a team-mate 89.4 per cent of the time. It's almost a throwback to the pure holding midfielders of the past, such as one-time Chelsea team-mate Claude Makelele. Mikel doesn't fashion the chances. But that's not his job.
Of course, this lack of creativity might lead some to conclude that this is no long-term solution. Not everyone is comfortable with the man they call 'the final whistle' due to the regularity with which he has been introduced from the bench in order to defend leads, blowing right from the kick-off.
But whatever the future holds, his presence isn't doing Chelsea too much harm right now. The simple approach is helping. This was about steadying this ship. And even now, six-and-a-half years on from Hiddink's last spell, they don't come much steadier than John Obi Mikel.