by Dave Whelan
Michael Essien sprung from the comparatively rich loins of Accra’s Liberty Professionals as the most talented seed of his generation. To give that some perspective, the club also bred, in the same generation, Sunderland’s Asamoah Gyan, Getafe’s Derek Boateng, Inter’s Sulley Muntari and Fulham’s John Paintsil. In other words, he’s the best of Ghana’s best.
But is that enough to warrant my vote as my favourite player “of all time”? An unequivocal yes. You know why? Because he’s never performed below an 8/10 in any position I have ever seen him play. He’s the Footballing Jack of All Trades and he’s the Master of All of Them.
I find it exceptionally appealing that this comparatively small looking man (he’s actually a not-so-embarrassing 5”10) not only went and dominated the central midfield of Africa but also, right this very moment, is about to be considered, perhaps, the best central midfielder playing the game today. And he started life as a centre back for club and country. I hear the crumpling of brows and the sighs of Xavi-lovers everywhere. But hear me out.
Essien said, in an interview with the official Manchester United website in 2005, that the one player he most admires in the Premier League is – have a guess – yes, Roy Keane. It should surely come as no surprise that this midfield dynamo, who arrived in England under a flurry of heavy tackles (some bordering on the most over-zealous this fan has ever seen) should admire the most famous of aggressive modern day centre’s. Unlike most people, I was taken by Essien’s desire to get stuck in and, at such a young juncture in his career in England, put his reputation on the line for his new club.
But he’s not really a bruiser anymore, is he?
After what I put down to perhaps a youthful desire to instantly make his mark at Chelsea, Essien calmed himself down and started to control every game he played in. In every position he has ever played. This is surely due to his apprenticeship in Ghana and then in France, which saw him feature for just under of half of his career to date as a centre-back.
He featured for Ghana’s victorious U-17 African Championship at DC in 1999 and excelled in the same position in the following year as Ghana finished 3rd in the U-17 World Cup.
At Bastia, in France, Essien was deployed as back up to the back four throughout the 00/01 season and it was only in 02/03 that Essien truly make it as a stand out central midfielder, displaying signs of the box-to-box ability we witness now. A flurry of yellow cars (12 in all) and goals (11) saw the development of an eye for a fantastic goal alongside the retention of his defensive instincts.
A big money move to Lyon become inevitable. He continued such form at Lyon, bagging 11 yellows and 8 goals during his time there. For some reason, which I cannot fathom, Essien moved to Chelsea under the assumption, via the “ever-astute” mainstream press, as a goal scoring midfielder. The stats show that he has never been that sort of player. In 120 games at Chelsea, he has only scored 16 goals. To play with the age-old cliché, he’s “a scorer of great goals” not a “great scorer of goals”. I just died a little bit inside.
Thus, when he stepped out onto Stamford Bridge for the first time, Essien had only actually played three full seasons as a Centre Midfielder. That’s absurd to think, isn’t it? Anyone who is reading this will already know what happened next: he’s played DMC, MC, AMC, RB and DC for Chelsea and received rave reviews anywhere he has played. Could you imagine what England could do with a player of this sort of football intelligence? Imagine Essien’s team-mate Frank Lampard being asked to fill in at right back. It would be shambolic.
And that’s why I love him. That’s why he’s so exceptional. Because he’s done exceptional things (seriously, watch the video below) and it’s never mattered where he has played.
And he’s not a naturalized centre midfielder, until now. When his career is reaching his peak, he’s truly begun to consistently show how sensational a footballer he is. He controls every match he plays through a mixture of supreme fitness, great tackling, concise passing and a huge work-rate.
So, there it is.
He’s scored, in my opinion, the best goal in the Champions League so far (it’s definitely, at least, the second best) and the finest goal ever from a player starting at right back in the Premiership. He’s excelled at centre back for country and club, at right back for Chelsea, and this season, I imagine, he’ll cement his place in most people’s World XI at Centre Midfield.
Not bad for a man who wasn’t deemed good enough for Manchester United in April 2000, eh?