In the summer of 2005, just after José Mourinho had made Chelsea the champions of England for the first time in fifty years, Michael Essien signed for the club. Olympique Lyonnais had found a bid of around £25 million too difficult to rebuff. Two Ligue 1 titles in as many seasons with Les Gones illustrated Essien’s ability and his presence would serve to further ramp up the quality of the midfield of a team that had just romped away with the Premier League title by a dozen points.
In the 2004-05 season, a midfield trio of Lampard, Makélélé and Tiago had metaphorically swept all before them, but when Mourinho described the Ghanaian as being, “the best we can get for his position and he can play anywhere in midfield,” it was clear that the 22-year-old had been lined up to take over from the manager’s compatriot. Here was a player of such abundant physical reserves that, after a metronomic display in a pulsating midfield, legend had it that he would go for a run to burn off surplus energy.
Such attention to the physical aspects of the game however, led him into early controversy. It may well have been that the player had been massively swayed by reports of the physicality present in the English game, but early on in his time at Stamford Bridge, it became clear how he had earned the description of being a “physical monster” in France. Robust challenges quickly became a feature of his game, but often spilled over into excess. One particular challenge on Liverpool’s Dietmar Hamman in a European game, is a case in point. Despite the referee somehow missing the challenge, a UEFA review resulted in a two-game ban. Quickly enough, Essien learned to rein such excesses without diminishing his desire and application, as Mourinho precisely molded his player into the required pattern.
So many players of this type quickly get labelled as being a ‘destroyer’ in the middle of the park, with any other ability subsumed into this destruction persona. Such accusation could never be labelled at Michael Essien. Allied to his lung-bursting forward sallies to support the forward line and ability to read games and cover to keep the Chelsea back door locked both alongside Makélélé, and after the Frenchman had left, was a versatility so valuable to Chelsea.
As well as covering across any midfield position Mourinho would deploy Essien in almost a ‘dual-role’ of playing both right-back and wide right midfield – at the same time. It almost seems an exaggeration to say, but the ‘Duracell Bunny’ running of Essien allowed his manager to ‘steal’ a position and almost cover eleven outfield spots with just ten men.
On one particular occasion, Chelsea were in trouble at Valencia in the Champions League in the 2006-07 season when Mourinho made this ploy. Not only did it swing the game in the Blues’ favour with the perpetual motion man patrolling the entire right flank for his team, Essien even popped up with the crucial goal on the night, to boot.
Goalscoring was never Essien’s forte, but in that same season, he also netted the equaliser at Stamford Bridge against Arsenal with a powerful shot struck with the outside of his right boot that arrowed into the net on a delightful curving arc. It would be voted as the club’s Goal of the Season and contributed to Essien being awarded as the club’s Player of the Season as well. He would also fill that same right-back slot against Manchester United in the 2008 Champions League Final in Moscow, although on that occasion the outcome was less favourable in the end, despite Essien excelling in his stand in role. Tragically for both player and club however the power and physicality that made him such an outstanding player and valuable asset was compromised the following season.
Playing in a World Cup qualifier, on a rock-hard dry African pitch, Essien suffered a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament injury, meaning a six-month period out of the game. Sadly, it would be the first of a series of injuries that gnawed away mercilessly at his physical ability and denuded him slowly of his power.
Another Goal of the Season, this time against Barcelona, when Chelsea came within seconds of eliminating The Catalan club in a game marred by refereeing controversy showed that the talent was still there, but more injuries would follow. Another one meant absence from the 2010 World Cup and a further ruptured cruciate ligament in 2011 cost another six months.
In 2012, just a few months after Chelsea had won the Champions League, with Essien an unused substitute, his role now taken by others, he joined Real Madrid on loan, teaming up with Mourinho once again. The Portuguese manager is too sharp a cookie for such a thing to have been any kind of sentimental move, and in his single season with Los Blancos Essien would make 35 appearances before returning to Stamford Bridge.
His time was clearly up in West London now, though. The man who had seemed invulnerable, with superhuman stamina and an insatiable appetite for the game was but a pale shadow of the player signed in 2005, and he moved on to AC Milan before his career would down.
At some time in the future, when people look back at the first decade of this century and the success that Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea enjoyed collecting silverware and records, names such as Cech, Terry, Drogba and Lampard will undoubtedly be to the fore. Not far behind though and certainly worthy of mention, will be the Ghanaian midfielder that the Blues signed with the extravagant aim of improving a team that had decimated the opposition the previous season, and the player that delivered on that aspiration was Michael Essien – Chelsea’s Perpetual Motion Man.