Posted by News Express | 21 August 2015 | 10,577 times
Is it possible to unlearn creativity in sport? Can one lose quickly a talent for a particular way of playing, while being made to pursue another? Is it possible to make one lose not just his confidence to play a certain way, but also his very ability to regain that quality? These are fascinating questions that could provide bases for some interesting in-depth research in sport. Talking about Nigerian international and Chelsea FC player John Mikel Obi’s playing style today engenders views from many Nigerian's which suggest that the answer to the questions is a definite ‘yes’.
A recent piece by my friend, Goal.com’s indefatigable football writer Solace Chukwu, echoes the sentiments harbored by many Nigerians that Chelsea’s manager Jose Mourinho denied Nigeria the opportunity of seeing the best of Mikel’s football in his club and especially in the national team's colors by converting him from a purely creative midfielder to one that is defensively minded, with a tendency to almost infinitely pass the ball backwards.
Chukwu’s article was to warn Nigerians to brace up for the likely evolution of Manchester City and Nigerian player Kelechi Iheanacho who, as his impressive preseason showing with his club has suggested, could be in the process of a transformation from the creative midfielder that Nigerians know him to be to an out and out striker. Chukwu argues that a switch from the creative midfield position from where he shone in the Under-17 World Cup in the UAE two years ago to a striker could be beneficial to Manchester City but not to the Super Eagles who, in his opinion, have a host of good upcoming strikers already, but a dearth of flair midfielders.
But did Mourinho really ‘kill’ Mikel’s game by the famed role change? I really don’t agree with such opinion for some reasons.
Firstly, I don’t think Mikel really had shown enough consistency as a creative midfielder prior to joining Chelsea in 2006 to prove beyond all reasonable doubt (pardon my legalese) that he would be able to cut it playing in the position at the highest level. The performance of Mikel in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in 2005 as an attacking midfielder has been, rightly or wrongly, romanticised. He was no doubt the star player that pushed the Flying Eagles to the final where they came short against a Lionel Mesi led Argentina. But I hope it’s not too cold blooded to invoke the western saying that a swallow does not make a summer. A player being able to do well at a particular tournament like the Under-20 World Cup may just be down basically to the fact that the opponents in that competition were not strong enough to test his true abilities to replicate that form consistently against the toughest of sides at the highest level.
We’ve seen countless cases where a player does well at the youth level but struggles to replicate his sparkling performance regularly at the senior stage for his club side or national team. Who killed Rabiu Ibrahim’s game? The former Nigeria Under-20 star was a dazzling creative midfielder who had so much semblance with Austin Okocha both in looks and playing style. Unfortunately, he could not reproduce his sterling form consistently which was clearly on display at the junior level against the big boys of senior level soccer. As far as I know, there was no change of playing roles for him in his club sides in Europe which one could blame for stifling his game.
I’m sure those of us who have followed the beautiful game can remember a couple of other names of both African and non-African players who shone like a million stars in the Under-17 and 20 World Cup competitions but went on to flop under the floodlights of top level football.
Youth level football tournaments can offer an insight into a player’s capabilities, but they are no definitive guide as to what roles he should play in the pitch for his club or country (at the senior cadre) in the long term.
As we ask in pidgin in our grassroots football parlance, “Who wan lose?” No coach surely wants to lose. And great coaches like Mourinho are those who do serious reflective coaching to consider how best a player can function in a side. If he's deployed Mikel as a defensive midfielder, it’s because he may have seriously doubted his penetrative passing skills compared to others preferred for that position), whether he has enough dribbling skill-set or his movement in final third of the field, or his vision to combine these qualities consistently at the highest level.
Secondly, is also instructive to note that after Mourinho’s first spell as Chelsea’s manager the club had several managers before the Portuguese tactician’s return in 2014. They included Avram Grant, Philipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas Boas and Roberto Di Matteo. None of these top gaffers deemed Mikel better as an offensive midfielder than a defensive one. Surely, their line of reasoning based on what they saw of Mikel's playing style tallied with Mourinho’s own.
If Siasia is quoted correctly to have claimed that Mourinho or Chelsea ruined Mikel for the national team of Nigeria, I guess it may have been a naively impulsive statement meant to feed an audience hungry for conspiracy theory, while trying to explain a failure to make the lad transition into an effective attacking midfielder for the Super Eagles. Mourinho is being scapegoated here, methinks.
Finally, Mikel has never really made any public statement to the effect that he's been played in a wrong position all his club life at Chelsea. It says a something about the man that despite all the hue and cry on his behalf, he has largely ignored being drawn into this controversy. In the reserves of his mind he could just be saying to all those who float the argument about his best position being in the offensive midfield part of the field that "you don't know me better than I know myself.”
The search for a real skillful attacking midfielder for the Super Eagles meanwhile must continue. However, there’s actually no need for us to regret what could, should or might have been had Mikel been deployed as a number 10 for club and country. Let’s be glad he has had as much football success as he has.
•Nelson Dafe is Benin City Correspondent of News Express. Photo shows Mikel Obi.
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