…Anthony Vickers Watched ex-Chelsea man Closely On his Riverside Debut
…So, how did surprise starter John Obi Mikel do on his debut?
Not bad. Not bad at all. In fact, he provided some eye-catching neon flashes of quality that illuminated an often monochrome match.
Little sparks. A sublime touch here. A laser-guided long ball there. A subtle shimmy to send a Newport man blundering down a cul-de-sac, creating precious time and space to calmly pick a pass. And all that happening in a bubble of serene slow-time he created around himself amid the scrappy, frantic flailing of the midfield melee.
Serial winner Mikel is a long-time trophy hoover. A sparkling decade with Chelsea earned him an enviable medal collection.
And even in the hurly-burly of a thud and blunder FA Cup clash, even on a rushed debut after one training session with his new team-mates, even after a long lay-off from active service you could see that he oozes class.
Mikel was quick to point out after the game that he was rusty and lacking match sharpness and he needed minutes. You could see that.
It is 10 weeks since his last outing for Chinese club Tianjin Tada when he played the full 90 and scored and that takes the edge off.
He didn’t do a lot of sprinting. There weren’t any lung-busting runs up-field. He barely broke sweat.
But he wasn’t blowing during the game. He was never beaten for pace. He never looked like he was towing a caravan.
There were some exquisite moments of distilled quality. He has an impressive palette of passing, a finely honed selection of well-weighted, perfectly delivered balls across all the angles on the protractor and at a variety of distances, speeds and heights.
Most of them were short and sharp, popping up across the middle third to collect and recycle sharply and accurately.
At one moment in the first half he was first to a loose ball but hemmed in by three arriving Newport midfielders, all snarling and snapping and looking to mug him 10 yards outside the box.
Mikel deftly lifted the ball over the outstretched toes of the first challenge and stepped aside leaving the assailant to follow through and impede the second County combatant then turned inside to shield himself from the third and calmly threaded a casual ball back between the centre-backs for Darren Randolph to deal with routinely.
Nice. It showed great positional awareness, incredible composure under pressure and shrewd, instinctive reading of the opposition intentions and took the sting out of a potential dangerous situations.
There were a few moments like that when Mikel took responsibility and control in a crowded middle third to tidy up with a bit of swagger.
He looks more than capable of playing that holding role, fire-fighting, breaking up attacks, quickly and cleanly playing the right ball to find a colleague in space to carry it forward and link up the different elements of the engine room.
But there were a few signs that he could play a more offensive role too, that he has the vision to spot movement between the lines and the technical ability to deliver a ball that can spark an attack.
There was one sublime moment midway through the first half when after a crisp exchange of short passes he looked up, spotted a run and took a touch to set himself up then hit the sweet spot.
He delivered an inch perfect 60 yard crossfield diagonal that sailed over and neutralised the Newport midfield and dropped onto the toes of Britt Assombalonga as he darted towards the box.
The striker drilled his low shot wide but that wasn’t really the point. It was the sublime artistry of the delivery that was a delight.
That move didn’t make the Match of the Day highlights which is a shame because aesthetically it was the best of the day.
So Mikel did well. It wasn’t a match-winning debut, the deep-lying destroyer position doesn’t lend itself to such drama.
But it was very encouraging. He was composed, tidy and effective in his holding brief and linked smoothly with the players around him plus there were hints at a more attacking enterprise when opportunity allows.
There were fascinating flashes there of the silk and steel John Obi Mikel that played for Chelsea just two years ago.
Yes, it was “only Newport” – but he hadn’t played since October and barely missed a beat.
When he gets up to speed, if that potential is consistently brought to bear on the pitch, he could be some weapon in the Championship.