In the pantheon of Chelsea cult-heroes, icons and legends, many names are often debated and scrutinised. There is no denying Michael Essien’s popularity amongst the fanbase, but bizarrely, he rarely seems to feature in any of these discussions.
In truth, injuries sapped the bison and denied him the true status he deserves at Stamford Bridge, as there was quite feasibly a time when Michael Essien was amongst the best, if not the best in his position. A genuine powerhouse and colossus in the midfield, he could go toe-to-toe with any player in the world and match them for pace, for power, for technique, and for energy.
Essien’s arrival at Stamford Bridge in August 2005 was the end of a contracted and complicated transfer saga. The stubborn Jean-Michel Aulas was aware of Chelsea’s interest from the previous year (and from earlier that year), and was determined to eek out as many Russian roubles as possible for his prize asset. Essien’s dynamism in the Champions League, his status as UNFP Player of the Year and young age – just 22, all served as good reasons to inflate the fee.
Essien was signed from Olympique Lyonnais on 14th August 2005 for (a staggering at the time) £24.4 million, making him Chelsea’s new record signing, after Drogba the previous season. He took the number 5 shirt. In many ways, Essien typified the ideal Mourinho signing – powerful, driven and endless energy. He possessed a surprising burst of pace and could dominate the midfield with his physicality and technical prowess. Equally importantly, it gave ‘The Special One’ another option as the defensive midfielder instead of Makalele, or in games where he was desperate to dominate the midfield, he could deploy the Ghanaian and the Frenchman together.
On his full debut, he picked up a customary yellow card for a crunching challenge. This would become a hallmark of the Bison’s game – he was no-nonsense and took no prisoners. Although Essien was known in France for possessing a creative spark and goal threat from midfield, his role at Chelsea was initially a lot more in a defensive capacity. His energy and strength in the centre of the pitch meant that Chelsea could quickly shift the ball forward in the transitional phase, and his driving bursts often initiated counter-attacks. In games where Chelsea expected to control the ball more and found themselves up against solid defences fighting to take a point against the defending champions, Essien instead was asked to sit in front of the back four, sweeping up with precision and using his long legs to cut out dangerous attacks.
Essien’s combative style did sometimes cause problems, however. Notably, he earned a retrospective suspension from UEFA after taking out Dietmar Hamann. The Ghanaian could tell it had affected the German international and he publicly apologised. UEFA still maintained their punishment as fair, even though Hamann accepted the apology, Essien would miss Chelsea’s Champions League elimination against Barcelona – this wouldn’t be the first controversial moment involving Essien and the Blaugrana. He also missed three games after a knee injury against West Ham, the first example of something else that would start to haunt Essien.
As the season progressed, Essien’s versatility began to come to the fore. Due to his footballing intelligence, stamina and playing style, he could fit in anywhere across the midfield and even found himself sometimes slotting in at full back. This suited him as Mourinho only required his defenders to be solid and disciplined, rather than dynamic. Already cementing himself as a favourite of Mourinho due to his tireless energy and power, Essien made himself popular with his new fans by saving his first goal for a London derby – he connected with Shaun Wright-Phillip’s cross to steer home against Tottenham Hotspur.
Essien followed up this goal with another, this time against Everton. His first trademark strike for Chelsea saw him maraud forward from right back, step inside to beat two players and then blast the ball in at the near post.
One of the most endearing factors about Essien to all fans was that he never stopped. He battled and scrapped, and ran his heart out for 90 minutes ever single match. When he was substituted on, he gave it his all. Essien ended his maiden season with a Premier League winner’s medal as Chelsea successfully defended their title. Essien made 42 appearances in all competitions, with 31 in the league. He grabbed two goals and two assists, but despite these meagre numbers, his consistency and dynamism was integral to Chelsea’s success.
By 2006/07 season, teams across Europe feared Chelsea’s midfield. Chelsea had the luxury of blending pace, power, energy, defensive nous and passing ability. Michael Ballack. Frank Lampard. Joe Cole. Claude Makalele. Michael Essien. Arjen Robben. The embarrassment of riches stretched further with Geremi, Lassana Diara and John Obi Mikel. Realistically, they could put out any three, four or five of these names and be able to compete with almost any team in Europe. Among those names, Essien was a rare talent because he was able to contribute within the offensive and defensive sphere with equal prowess.
Essien’s engine was a huge factor in Chelsea’s ability to control games and grind down opponents. For the opening 29 matchdays, he did not miss a single minute in the Premier League, and played every minute of the Champions League group stage too. He grabbed his first Champions League goal for the Blues finishing neatly against Werder Bremen at Stamford Bridge. It was a composed strike after the ball bounced free to him on the edge of the box. This was one of Essien’s other hallmark traits – despite his stocky frame, he was technically excellent and often had the luxury of deciding whether to merely outdribble opponents, or outmuscle them with power and acceleration. His goal against Aston Villa in the League Cup demonstrated this aspect beautifully, as his neat footwork left him free to impudently poke the ball into the top corner.
Essien will always be fondly remembered for his absolute thunderbolts. He had an uncanny ability to catch the ball absolutely perfectly at times and some of his strikes were literally unsaveable. He won Goal of the Season for Chelsea after his late howitzer against Arsenal. I don’t think I can do justice for the goal with words, so just watch it below.
What’s equally commendable about this goal is how little Chelsea celebrated it. In retrospect, it probably deserved more, but this was Jose’s Chelsea in their pomp. Drawing at home was considered to be an insult.
Again, Essien’s versatility this season has to be commended as he added right midfield and centre-back to positions he could comfortably slot into. His performances earned him recognition from fans and media alike. The Bison was nominated for the Ballon D’Or, came 3rd for Best African Footballer and won the BBC’s African Footballer of the Year award for the second year running.
He became the first African player to win Chelsea’s own fan’s Player of the Year too, following the end of a stellar year. Although he missed a brief spell through injuries, he still collected a League and FA Cup double and made 55 appearances, nearly totalling 5,000 minutes. The Bison just kept charging and charging and charging, and woe betide anyone who happened to get in his way.