As regular EPL fans would know, John Obi Mikel is considered a regular substitute for Mourinho’s side, as he is regularly subbed in in the last 10-15 minutes of the games. The purpose is simple: to relieve the starters and put more weight on defense to maintain the lead.
However, he managed to start in 3 of the last 4 games (5 out of 6 including the games against Sporting and Derby County), the one of which he did not start in being the last game against Westham. It is a notable situation, for those 3 games are the only league games he started in this season.
The main reason Mourinho chose to have Mikel to do so seems to be that he recognized the tight schedule, wanted to relieve some of the original starters, such as Oscar, Hazard, Fabregas, and Matic, and prepared them for the tougher games lying ahead: ones against Southampton and Westham who are currently each 4th and 5th in rank.
Mikel, having scored his first goal in Chelsea (a team he has played for since 2006) during the process (against Sporting), overall did a fairly good job replacing the original starters. He did expose the same weaknesses he used to expose, but at the same time proved that he nevertheless plays a tactically useful role in the team. Now let’s first look at the factors that make him an unlikely regular starter, then examine the tactical benefits he brings to the team.
Probably that the only game Chelsea has lost this season is the recent game against Newcastle where Mikel started instead of Matic is no coincidence. Mikel still seems to lack some crucial features that would make him a much stronger defensive midfielder.
In terms of defensive ability, Mikel does a decent job in making some important tackles and interceptions. Of course his teammate, or competitor, Matic is simply fired up this season and does much more than a ‘decent’ job in defense.
But the real difference between the two comes down to their passing ability. Although it can be argued that defensive midfield is a position where passing is relatively not important, it cannot be denied that in modern football a defensive midfielder has to be able to make at least simple passes.
And while Matic does an excellent job in supporting fellow midfielders, namely Fabregas and Hazard, in this build-up process, it is not uncommon to see Mikel make inaccurate passes even when there are plenty of options and space. Another factor is vision. Both players do not have the vision of Pirlo or Sergio Busquets, arguably the player who has the best vision among those who play in defensive midfield.
However, Matic at least seems composed when he has the ball, manages to find a player in space, if not the best option in the whole field, and eventually delivers the simple pass. Mikel struggles in this part as well, for sometimes he just sticks with one side where there is limited space, not taking advantage of the opposite side where more space is available. The situation in the picture below explains it all.
The one who has the ball is Mikel and he is trying to play towards the left. However, it can be seen that the Stoke defenders have already shifted towards that side. (Maybe this point is not so clear in the picture.) Apparently Mikel has the option to play the ball to Ivanovic (who is raising his arms) who has a great deal of space and who seems to be aware of it.
Instead he gives the ball to Willian who is followed by a defender near him, and after a series of meaningless passes with him, he attempts to play the ball to Hazard on the left but the careless pass goes off the line and the team loses possession.
Nevertheless, the fact that Mourinho decided to include him in the starting line-up in 5 consecutive games shows his trust in the player. Then what does Mikel bring to the team other than relieving the original starters?
Throughout the season, most of the times when Mikel was on the field, he played alongside Matic in front of the defense line to form a completely defensive pair of central midfielders. This placement forced Fabregas to move more forwards and allowed him to play a more offensive role; in other words the key playmaker of the team was able to focus more on his role and adhere to his strengths.
And ultimately this tactical formation enables more direct football, as Fabregas automatically focuses more on making the through ball to Costa or Hazard than on maintaining possession. Therefore, although Mikel himself might not be the key in the tactic, his position and characteristics do provide an unique option that Mourinho has used and would use later on whenever the team needs it.
To make a prediction, I have a strong feeling that he will use this system if Chelsea faces an opponent like Barcelona, Real Madrid, or Bayern Munich in the Champions League. And Mikel will play a part of it; the unusual starter will become the starter in the big game.