"The Ghanaian star at least won the BBC African Footballer of the Year accolade for a season of astonishing adaptability"
Inevitably the Player of the Year accolades went to Christiano Ronaldo, with Didier Drogba running him close but there can’t have been a manager in the Premiership that didn’t envy Jose Mourinho having Michael Essien in his side.
The Ghanaian star at least won the BBC African Footballer of the Year accolade for a season of astonishing adaptability. In an age where top players have become increasingly specialised in their positions Essien brought back an epithet so beloved in the 1960 and 70s- the ‘utility man’.
There are- or were- two types of utility man. Ones who could fill in most positions but weren’t quite good enough to make a single position their own and a second rarer type who took over any position and did it better than most of the specialists- Michael Essien is one of these.
Not that Essien intended to make a name for himself in this regard but his superb athleticism, rugged approach, excellent technique and willingness to play for the team, proved a godsend to Jose Mourinho in an injury strewn season at Chelsea.
The ex-Lyon player came to Chelsea as ostensibly a central midfielder but quickly showed that he had different facets to his game. He was often utilised playing on the right side of Chelsea’s formation or to provide the power and destructive element in the centre. For the most part, Essien played things simply in a side full of talent.
Then in last summer’s World Cup he showed another side of his game, taking a deep lying role to allow Stephen Appiah to roam further forward, In Ghana’s less direct style he also showed more of his playmaking qualities that he kept to a minimum at Stamford Bridge.
Having demonstrated superbly rounded skills as a midfield player, Essien took his flexibility to even greater levels in the 2006/07 Premiership campaign. The catalyst was problems with Chelsea’s defence.
Right back has been a relative weakness in the side, especially coming forward. Paulo Ferriera has been competent but lacks dynamism in the final third- his counterparts Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge look far more progressive on the left.
In addition, Mourinho is a coach given to occasional sweeping tactical changes to turn a game and removing a defender is often part of his gambit. Michael Essien is the ideal man to have on the park to make these dramatic decisions work.
The standout example came in the away Champions League game at Valencia when Essien produced the winner in the last minute of normal time from his wide right wing back role.
This repeated a reorganisation that took place during an earlier game with Barcelona when Essien went to right back (roughly, because he covers that much ground it is difficult to define his role) after beginning in midfield.
Right back though wasn’t the only defensive role Essien took on with aplomb. Extreme problems with Chelsea’s centre back resources saw Jose Mourinho choose his Ghanaian midfielder as an emergency stopper.
Moving around the fringe positions is one thing but slotting into a totally different role in the spine of the team is another level of flexibility. John Terry has gone on record to express his astonishment at how quickly his colleague began taking up the right positions as if centre back had been his position all his life.
There were blips of course- paired with Ferriera against Liverpool, the team were vulnerable to crosses and against Spurs the defence was racked by indecision before a magnificent fightback kept Chelsea’s Cup hopes alive.
Nevertheless, by the season’s end, Essien had convinced everyone that should he decide to, he has the capacity to make central defence a regular position. That won’t happen as Chelsea will be only too glad to have his drive back in midfield but what a bonus it turned out to be for the club.
At £24 million plus, some may have thought that this was an inflated price to pay for him back in summer 2005. In the event it’s proved to be more than good value for a signing who has become the backbone of the squad and effectively three players in one.