Manchester United fans have no reason to like John Obi Mikel, the man who forced a move to Chelsea in 2006. Even Chelsea fans are ambivalent about the Nigerian who seemingly does little but pass the ball to Michael Essien and Frank Lampard. However, Obi Mikel is as important to Chelsea as Jack Wilshere is to Arsenal.
Obi Mikel is the passer who takes the easy ball from defense and distributes it to players further up field. He might not have the twinkle toes of Wilshere but he is physically strong and has a better range of passing than the Englishman, which arguably makes the Chelsea midfielder better suited for the role.
Indeed, it is Obi Mikel’s brawn that allows Chelsea to play Essien not as a water carrier but as an all-action, box-to-box player alongside a creative midfielder such as Lampard in a very aggressive 4-3-3.
Obi Mikel’s role is made even more integral to the Blues given the uneasiness of Chelsea centre-backs on the ball, especially John Terry. By neutralising Obi Mikel, United can “break” Chelsea – without the Nigerian to link the defence and attack, Terry and Branislav Ivanovic will attempt fortuitous long balls.
However, the above analysis is rather simple considering that Chelsea’s first XI will most likely feature Ashley Cole and Paolo Ferreira – two excellent attacking full-backs who are comfortable carrying the ball forward. To combat the threat down the wings, Nani and Ji-Sung Park will likely be deployed on United’s flanks, ensuring direct markers to the opposition full-backs.
Furthermore, Ferguson will probably deploy Park on the right and Nani on the left. While Nani has shown this season that he is a capable defensive player, Park is in a class of his own in this respect and will be deployed to mark Cole. The England full-back, like Obi Mikel, is more important to the current Chelsea side than in the past because Chelsea’s centre-backs are not comfortable on the ball.
Chelsea’s reliance on full-backs and Obi Mikel to start their attacks was exploited brilliantly by Sunderland who defeated Chelsea 3-0 at Stamford Bridge this season. The Black Cats achieved the historic win by deploying a high-pressing 4-4-2. Danny Welbeck et al hassled the Chelsea defence all game, while Kieron Richardson man-marked Cole. Chelsea found it extremely difficult to connect passes and succumbed to the pace of Sunderland’s strikers on the counter.
It is unlikely that Javier Hernández will be risked given his inexperience. Meanwhile Dimitar Berbatov is far from lazy but the Bulgarian isn’t exactly mobile either and rarely hassles his opponents or make runs down the channel to create space. Given the personnel available, 4-4-2 remains a touch too risky and Sir Alex Ferguson will most likely choose a trusted variant on 4-5-1.
Last Monday, Sir Alex deployed 4-3-3 to mirror Arsenal’s formation and to ensure that each of the Londoners’ players had a direct opponent. Similarly, the Scot will go for 4-2-3-1 on Sunday – the usual back four supported by Edwin Van der Sar, with Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher holding and an attacking midfield trio of Nani, Anderson and Park, spearheaded by Wayne Rooney to mirror Chelsea’s 4-3-3.
The game will likely be livelier than the Arsenal fixture too. Pressing is key to defeating Chelsea as Sunderland has already shown this season. United will attempt to take the game to the home side. Chelsea forwards aren’t particularly fast and the Reds will gain an advantage by setting up a high line to facilitate the pressing game.
With Chelsea’s back-four shaky, Lampard just coming into the side after a lengthy spell on the sidelines and Didier Drogba et al having a poor season, United fans can realistically expect a first Reds’ victory at Stamford Bridge since 2002.