Michael Essien’s three-match suspension for the mistimed two-footed tackle on Clint Dempsey is over and he will return to the Chelsea first team, this weekend against Everton. That fateful tackle was not just “mistimed” because Essien went in late, but also because at that time the clock read 94 minutes and Chelsea was already without its midfield general Frank Lampard. It was under these extraordinary circumstances that The Bison had a momentary lapse in concentration and did what has now potentially cost the champions eight points.
But, can the twin losses against Sunderland and Birmingham and the draw against Newcastle be attributed to the absence of one man?
Helping put things into perspective, are four questions especially deserving of an answer.
1. Was the suspended player an unstoppable midfield engine, comfortable at handling any role assigned to him on the pitch?
2. Has his absence in the past affected the team’s fortunes, despite the presence of almost everyone but him?
3. Was his replacement an unsettled, under-pressure, untested-in-English-waters new signing?
4. Was the team already missing other equally valuable stalwarts because of injury?
It would not be fair to luck, to poor performers in attack and in defense, and to the opponents if we give the entire credit of Black November to those five seconds which made Michael Essien sit out of the last three league games. But, if we ask “Could he have made a substantial difference to the team’s fortunes?”, the answer would most definitely be a resounding “YES”. Now, November is behind us and the powerhouse midfielder is back.
The relationship between Michael Essien’s availability and CFC’s fortunes
In the last two and a half years, injuries have severely limited the Ghanaian’s availability both for the national team and for the West London Club. Not only did his prolonged absence have a debilitating effect on the team’s on-field performances, but also contributed to a manager being sacked and another one’s European ambitions being dashed.
Luis Scolari endured a troubled time in West London and was shown the door after managing Chelsea for 36 games, out of which 11 were drawn and five were lost. The Londoners lost to Liverpool at Stamford Bridge after an unbeaten streak of 86 league games at home. Soon after, Arsenal too emulated Liverpool and returned from the Bridge with all three points. Another highlight, or should we say lowlight, of the Brazilian’s reign was a meek 3-0 surrender at Old Trafford. Many causes are attributed to his downfall at the Bridge – poor grasp on the English language, less than optimum fitness routines, adopting a zonal marking system to defend at set-pieces, and a fallout between him and the senior player.
Soon after he was fired, Russia’s coach Guus Hiddink was roped in on a temporary basis to resurrect the campaign of the team that was meandering on the threshold of Champions League qualification. The revered Dutchman came in and immediately Chelsea regained its lost aura, winning 15 of the next 21 games and losing just once to Spurs at White Hart Lane. The sudden reversal in fortunes coincided with the return of Michael Essien, who had not featured for the Blues for six months after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while on International duty and had thus missed almost the entire time under Scolari.
“Essien has come back so we have more depth in quality in the squad. “He was out for many, many months so it’s not easy for him to get the rhythm of the game from the first minute he plays. But he’s very strong, a very positive guy and he can have a huge impact for the rest of the season. He’s ready to start.” – Guus Hiddink before Chelsea were to face Juventus at Turin in March.
On his return, Michael scored the first goal for Chelsea at Turin and from there on Hiddink had a weapon of mass destruction that not only bombed forward to instill fear into opponents’ hearts but also, defensively, man-marked players out of the contest. On a memorable European night at Anfield, Essien completely neutralized Steven Gerrard and as a result Chelsea powered its way to a famous 1-3 win.
Michael Essien – The Answer
In the following season under Carlo Ancelotti, the Blues won their first ever domestic double; however, they faltered in the Champions League and were knocked out by Jose Mourinho’s Internazionale. Ancelotti summed up the European disappointment by stating that the team lacked power, ability and character; he could have very well uttered just two words – Michael Essien. Just few months after making a return from a long layoff, the Ghanaian was again forced to head back to the medical room after injuring his knee in the build up to the African cup in January 2010. After missing the first half of 2008-09 season, he also missed the remainder of Ancelotti’s first season at the Bridge and also the World Cup in June.
Nevertheless, he was held in such high esteem at Chelsea that he was offered an improved two year contract extension this year in June, while he was still injured, had missed close to 11 months of football in the last two years and still had almost three years remaining on his last contract.
Such long spells on the sidelines can be demoralizing for the best of us, but not for Essien, who persevered and recovered from the injury at the start of the on-going campaign. He was eager to make up for the lost time and was like a new signing. With him in the team, and other stars fit, Chelsea expectedly began the season with a bang, notching up win after win by brushing aside opponents.
The present scenario
Ancelotti usually deploys Essien on the right side of the central midfield, which is his best position on the pitch, while Mikel is used as a central defensive midfielder. This position gives him the freedom to assist in attack – his dynamic presence keeps the midfield ticking, he makes well-timed runs into the opposition’s final third, looks to pass the ball forward, and has an eye for the goal. Not only can he score from 30-yards out but is also dangerous at set pieces, a skill that he has already exhibited by scoring quite a few headed goals this season.
While the opposition is on the attack, he ably assists Mikel in breaking up attacking moves and intercepting passes. The two Africans brilliantly complement each other, wherein Essien covers for the Nigerian’s lack of pace with his limitless supplies of energy. Also, his infectious presence on the pitch rubs on to the players around him, motivating them to go beyond the threshold of their talent.
In an ideal world, the manager would surely have used the trio of Essien, Mikel and Lampard – the best midfield combination at Chelsea. However, Lampard has not played since August and Essien has missed three out of the four matches that Chelsea has lost this season. Again underlying the difference his absence makes to the team. Against Liverpool, he was out with a minor injury; whereas, he has been serving a suspension ever since the Fulham win.
“People are saying I’m one of the new signings this year, and I am looking forward to playing more consistently after missing so much of the last two seasons.”This can be a big season. I don’t think I’ve still got things to show Carlo Ancelotti. He has seen me play a lot, even before he was our manager, and he knows what I can do. It’s not as if I have anything to prove to him. He knows I will go out there and work really hard for the team every week.” – Michael Essien, after recovering from the second knee injury.
If he was hungry after losing out an entire year to injury, the hunger would have only increased by now. He must be pulling out his hair while watching the midfield capitulate in his absence, match after match, as if not for one misjudgement, he would have been able to help Chelsea in the games that the club lost. He would be dying to step onto the pitch and help his team overcome this challenging period. His return has come at a time when the champions have to face Everton at home, travel to White Hart Lane and then entertain Manchester United at the Bridge, in the next three matches in the league. Chelsea must earn at least five out of the available nine points to ensure that the gap at the top does not widen, or better still to reclaim the top spot from the Old Trafford club.
On his birthday, the eagerly-awaited Michael Essien would do well to remember Bruce Barton’s fine words :
“Nothing splendid has ever been achieved except by those who dared believe that something inside of them was superior to circumstance.”