Michael Essien made his Champions League debut for Real Madrid from the start, but played no part in his side’s dramatic 3-2 victory.
Despite finally recovering from long-term knee injuries, Essien found himself warming the bench at Chelsea in recent times, with Frank Lampard and John Mikel Obi being Roberto Di Matteo’s midfield base of choice in his 4-2-3-1 system.
But the Ghana international’s talents would not go to waste. In came Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho, with whom Michael Essien has a close relationship.
“I see him as a father because he was the one who took me to Chelsea. I know him very well and I love him too – we have a very good relationship, we understand each other.”
So good is the pair’s relationship that Mourinho thrust Michael Essien into the starting midfield lineup versus Manchester City to make his debut. It was a somewhat surprising decision, given that this was Essien’s first bit of action since Chelsea’s 5-2 FA Cup victory over Leicester City on March 18. The decision to pick him over Luka Modric and Mesut Ozil, who were left on the bench, was also surprising.
Or was it? Mourinho’s admission that ‘he had no team’ following Real Madrid’s disappointing 1-0 loss away to Sevilla was worrying. Having seen his side fall 8 points behind last season’s league runners-up Barcelona following that loss, he would’ve wanted to avoid putting further pressure on himself and his team. He was not about to go all out and allow the visitors’ attacking prowess to put his team to the sword, especially at home. Deciding to play it safe, then, Michael Essien’s job was clear. Sitting alongside Sam Khedira and Xabi Alonso in central midfield, he had to provide extra solidity.
The thing is, though, that Roberto Mancini tried to play things safe as well, setting up his team to play on the counter-attack. Xabi Alonso appreciated this. He usually dictates the tempo for Real Madrid and he took the lead again, completing more long balls (8) than any other player on the pitch as he sought to unlock Manchester City’s defence from his usual deep position. He completed more passes (69) than any other player as well, further evidencing his influence on proceedings.
Essien, meanwhile, had little to do defensively. In fact, other than being whistled for dangerous play, he didn’t make a single tackle, interception, clearance, or block during this game. Instead, he used the time on the ball and the space he was afforded to make 2 key passes. The first set up Cristiano Ronaldo in as early as the second minute, but the ‘sad’ Portuguese talisman snapped his shot wide. The other final ball was played to Angel Di Maria, who fizzed his shot wide as well. Essien himself also mustered 2 efforts, but one was way wide while the other blocked.
It wasn’t a poor overall performance from Michael Essien; but it wasn’t an effective one either. It certainly wasn’t what was needed. It could’ve been a case of mounting pressure forcing Mourinho’s hand. After all, he made one other eye-opening decision — leaving Sergio Ramos out and starting the green Raphael Varane in central defence. Had Modric or Ozil started instead of Essien, it’s quite likely that the game would’ve gone better for Real Madrid, especially the first half, which was very cagey given the gameplans of both managers.
Essien was chosen ahead of Modric and Ozil because he is the best defensively out of the three as well as because he is a decent passer of the ball. Maybe he was also chosen because of their close relationship. If there was one player he could trust in such a big game, with so much pressure around it, it was the Michael Essien he has known for a long time.
But although he is a decent passer of the ball, as he showed during his 65-minute debut performance, Modric and Ozil are more visionary and incisive in their passing. The movement of both players is also better than Essien’s. With Manchester City sitting deep, those qualities would’ve come in very handy.
Mourinho eventually acknowledged this, evidenced by the fact that Michael Essien was the first player to be subbed. For whom? Mesut Ozil. The Germany international immediately took up a more advanced position on the pitch as evidenced by the heat map below.
But that wasn’t all. Minutes later, after Manchester City went ahead following a successful counter-attack, Sami Khedira saw his number go up. For whom? Luka Modric. Modric took up a position close to Xabi Alonso, but he got forward with more purpose than either Essien or Khedira did.
Neither Modric nor Ozil made a telling contribution (goal or assist) during their cameo appearances, but they provided the kind of urgency of passing and excellent movement that Real Madrid lacked before their introduction.
And Jose Mourinho was rewarded for making those changes — Cristiano Ronaldo slammed home the winner past a dumbfounded Joe Hart in the dying embers of the game. The subsequent knee slide and vivid show of emotion by Mourinho said much, particularly about the pressure he felt leading up to and during that huge encounter, when his team looked like losing. Twice. It indeed explains why he chose to play things safe initially by selecting Michael Essien.
It wasn’t the ideal game for Michael Essien to make his debut, but no doubt he’ll have other opportunities. Once he builds his match fitness, he’ll go on to prove a wonderful acquisition for Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid.
He is a player that, once at his best, adds reliability to his team. And that’s timely, because reliability is precisely what his “father” needs right now as he bids to catch his fierce rivals Barcelona and ease the mounting pressure on his shoulders.
**Stats courtesy of Whoscored
**Heat maps courtesy of ESPN FC