If Sunday Oliseh uses the Chelsea midfielder as a deep-lying playmaker, the Super Eagles may find another creative heartbeat
COMMENT By Solomon Fowowe
The best decision Sunday Oliseh could make right now is to reinvent Chelsea 's John Obi Mikel as Nigeria 's deep-lying playmaker.
In the past, the suggestion might have seemed ridiculous—how could Mikel seek to emulate deities of the game such as Andrea Pirlo?
How can the Nigerian hold a candle to the Italian great? Indeed, perhaps the role of the regista should be re-christened the ‘Pirlo role’ in homage to the New York City FC midfielder.
If there’s a Makelele role, there should surely be a ‘Pirlo role’ as well; the Juventus and Milan great dominated matches with his baton of a boot, conducting and controlling proceedings like an orchestral piece played in pianissimo while being able to take a game from adagio to prestissimo with a single weave of his enchanted foot, leaving spectators breathlessly in awe. The magical melodious piece itself ending in a crescendo; “Bravo maestro, Bravo” scream the crowd in acknowledgement of his bravura.
Is it fanciful to imagine Mikel dominating a midfield like Pirlo?It’s hard to imagine Mikel generating the same kind of reaction.
With the Chelsea man, would the team not be stuck at andante, a walking pace that has typified the midfielder when he dons the Super Eagles jersey as well? Not for Mikel the breath-taking passes and game-changing interventions, instead, the inveterate show of insouciance accompanied by a dereliction of defensive duties.
Over the years, Mikel and a host of others have all taken turns to fill the hole left by Jay-Jay Okocha, but none have matched his wizardry.
The search for a half decent central attacking midfielder is still ongoing, with Rabiu Ibrahim the current trialist for the role in the hole.
Have Nigeria ever truly replaced Okocha?Mikel was the heir apparent to Okocha's creative throne but a Chelsea move later, he still hasn’t locked down the position, with managers trying to shoehorn him into the attacking midfield position despite his evident re-education at the Cobham training centre.
Mikel has failed due to perception perhaps as much as substance; his graceless, stiffened gait when sauntering on the field, dithering on the ball in such crowded areas make for a sore sight, but whenever he does break into a run — a rarity of Halley's Comet proportions — his ability to pick a pass puts him a class above some of his rivals in the international setup.
Two appearances under the new manager, Sunday Oliseh, and Mikel appears to have found a new lease of life.
Brisker, snappier and sharper, the 28-year-old was a level higher than he'd appeared for some time. He influenced proceedings and was markedly better than the rest, especially in the loss to the Democratic Republic Congo.
Will the player lost at Cobham ever reemerge for the Super Eagles?Mikel 2.0 was arguably the only positive to be gleaned from the disappointing loss, playing at the base of the midfield alongside Ogenyi Onazi before he moved into the hole after Nwakwo Obiora's inclusion. Mikel effortlessly dictated the pace of the game against Cameroon, and there were times when he inadvertently took up the regista role, receiving the ball from either of the center-back pairing, orchestrating play from deep and exerting his influence on the game.
It was Mikel at his ravishing best.
It helped that Onazi and Igbonu availed themselves for the short-passing interchange that established a rhythm to the game. The movement of the forwards also enabled him to hit long searching diagonals that enunciated his good passing range. The brilliant pass that led to Moses Simon's goal reeked of Mikel, it took several replays to convince many it came off Ahmed Musa's boot!
A role with a position, deep in front of the defence with two other hardworking midfielders ahead, offers the Jos-born midfielder space and time to conjure the magic we thought he was once capable of. Fittingly, Mikel plays alongside a terrier in Onazi and the relentless endeavour Igbonu offered high up the pitch in closing down the opponent, if replicated, means there would be less defensive onus on the Chelsea player.
It also effectively ends the long winding rummage for Okocha's successor. The heir has been found, just in a slightly deeper position.
There is little to declare Mikel's performance in those games as the normative rather than the exception, but there certainly are doubts over his ability to maintain such level of movement and dedication in a game.
Mikel is no Pirlo. In fact, the difference in quality might be Grand Canyon-sized. However, he remains one of Nigeria's most talented players, capable of doing great things, and playmaking from deep might just be one of them.
Sunday Oliseh has his job cut out; he must flip Stephen Keshi’s triangle, install Mikel behind two hard-working midfielders, keep the Chelsea man motivated and perhaps…just perhaps…the player can begin to demonstrate the level of prodigious creativity he showed as a youngster.
The Swaziland game can't come soon enough.