Michael Essien tips Chelsea for title next year, wants Brendan Rodgers to manage Blues, talks signing for Mourinho and reminisces about Champions League win
Michael Essien won two Premier Leagues, four FA Cups and the Champions League in a trophy-laden spell at Chelsea.
We caught up with the former midfielder to get his take on the current Chelsea, what it was like dealing with Jose Mourinho and how it felt to win the Champions League.
Keep an eye on our social channels over the coming days to see who Michael picks in his Chelsea v Leicester 5-A-Side team.
‘Chelsea can win the league next year’
I’m going to say Chelsea win the league next season, based on how good they’ve looked since Thomas Tuchel has taken over. They’re my first choice for the title, then it’s obviously going to be Man United, Liverpool and Man City who will be right up there with them.
With the players Thomas Tuchel has got at his disposal, I think he’s got all the tools needed to challenge for the title next season. If you look from the goalkeepers to the forwards, they’ve got big names all over the pitch. They’ve got it all.
I love the fact that they’ve got Thiago Silva at the back, his experience really is vital to that team and he’s such a great name the younger players in the squad can learn from. He commands the back line very well, but even without him, they’ve got Antonio Rudiger, Kurt Zouma and Andreas Christensen, so they’re very strong in that area.
In terms of where else they could realistically strengthen – I’m not sure, because it’s very difficult to go out and find a quality striker available in the market. Plus, I really like Timo Werner, I actually think he’s done very well, particularly in recent weeks. He’s so tricky to keep up with so if he can start adding goals to his game next season I don’t think it’s an area Chelsea will need to look at strengthening.
Even without scoring goals, he’s still contributing so much to the team, giving assists to his teammates and playing a vital role in winning games. But as a striker, especially at that price, when you’re not scoring, people tend not to look at anything else that you do other than your goal ratio.
On Chelsea’s season
Things change very quickly in football, but I have to say I thought Frank Lampard did really well during his time in charge at Chelsea – particularly in his first year. But these things happen in football, and you see managers come and go all the time. Thomas Tuchel has come in and he’s doing a great job. Hopefully they’ll be able to finish the season strong by bringing the Champions League back to London.
Every manager has their own way of working but the difference with Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel compared to Frank Lampard is that not only are they really strong defensively, but they now break very quickly into attacks. They defend really well and when the opportunity is there for them, they counter so quickly. They’re playing with flair now, and they’ve got some very talented players up-front. Good things come from preparing yourself defensively; that solidity at the back gives the forwards more of an opportunity to attack.
It’s always difficult when you have players arriving at such big fees, because it can go both ways; some players come in and it takes time to adapt and get to know his teammates, while others will hit the ground running. It’s very unfortunate for Frank because it’s taken time for the likes of Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz to get going, something they’ve started to do under Thomas Tuchel. The players know each other quite well now, they know how they all play, and they look very strong together.
‘I was surprised Lampard became a manager’
I know Frank very well, and mentally he’s a very strong person. I’d love to see him back in a dugout again as soon as possible, but I have to say it did take me by surprise when he stepped into management.
Working with him and playing alongside him for so many years, and spending time with him in the dressing room, I didn’t know he was thinking of becoming a manager. He’s quite a quiet person, very friendly but quiet. So it took me by surprise, but then again his understanding of the game is second to none.
Coaching is totally different from being a player. To do it, you have to really love everything about the game and put 110% into it, and it’s what the likes of Lampard have been doing. He knows the game inside out and it’s such a great achievement for him to have managed a club like Chelsea so early into his managerial career.
FA Cup final preview
It’s not going to be easy for Chelsea this weekend; nothing good comes easy. I know Brendan Rodgers from his time at Chelsea, and I like him as a manager, he’s very good. Leicester are definitely going to go all out for it, but I’d expect Chelsea to win on the day. I’m not very good at predicting scores, but I think Chelsea will win the game.
It’s tough to choose my favourite FA Cup final, but I’d probably go with my first ever win, when we beat Manchester United in extra-time. The FA Cup is one of the biggest trophies in the world, so winning it so many times was very special for me. We had so many big players with big egos – in a good way – who loved to win.
We wouldn’t accept anything other than winning. The atmosphere was great and the competition was strong. Whoever was picked for the team would get the job done, which was what made us so successful.
‘Drogba phoned Malouda at a barbecue and told us Mourinho wanted to sign me’
When I was around 17 I had a couple of trials with Manchester United but I couldn’t get a work permit so I played in France for a while. During my time in France I visited Liverpool when Gerard Houllier was in charge but nothing happened there. A few other clubs were interested in me at the time Chelsea showed an interest, but I was set on a move to Chelsea after talking to Jose and a couple of the players.
I remember the period before I joined Chelsea quite well, specifically when I first heard about their interest in me. I was playing for Lyon at the time and I was at Florent Malouda’s house having a barbecue with some of the other teammates when a call came in. It was Didier Drogba on the line. He was asking Malouda about me, about Malouda said “Michael’s right here, you can speak to him yourself” and he passed the phone over to me.
Didier told me that Jose Mourinho wanted to speak with me so I passed him my number and that’s when everything started moving for me.
Jose was direct with me, he told me he liked my style, he liked how I played and he thought I’d fit well in his team. It was always a dream of mine to play in the Premier League so when the call came, and the way he spoke with me, that sold it for me.
I don’t know whether Tottenham made the right decision in letting Jose Mourinho go. I’m just an outsider so it’s hard to say, but managers come and go – it’s part of the game. I’m sure they have their reasons, but it was sad to see him leave, especially the week before a cup final.
But it’s not the first time he’s left a club – I know him very well, and he’s so mentally strong, he’ll always be linked with top jobs. I’ve known him for such a long time, playing for him over many years – it would be nice to work with him again one day, instead of on the pitch in the boardroom with him. We’ll see.
The atmosphere around the club when I joined was so good – there was competition for places in every position but it made us stronger as a unit, and it’s what made us so successful.
What it’s like to win a Champions League final
Sometimes in football, you need a bit of luck, but if you put in the hard work, I’ve found in my career that you get that extra bit of luck.
When I think back to the Champions League in 2012, you have to look at our route to the final and what we had to overcome. In our Round of 16 game we were 3-1 down to Napoli after the first leg, so we needed to score four at Stamford Bridge to progress to the quarter-finals.
Then, of course, we met Barcelona in the semi-finals. We played out a tough game at Stamford Bridge and within the first-half we were down to 10-men at the Nou Camp. Barcelona kept attacking and attacking, but in the end we managed to go through.
So by the time we got to the final, we weren’t scared of anyone. What was the worst that was going to happen? We just had to throw everything into the game.
As far as the final was concerned, we set ourselves up to be strong defensively and hit them on the counter – that’s what we tried to do. Bayern threw so much at us in that game, but we stood strong and stuck to our plan.
I remember just before we had the corner where Didier Drogba scored, Branislav Ivanovic was sat next to me on the bench and he couldn’t watch, he was so nervous. I told him we were going to score; I had to say something to calm him down. I said to him “relax, it’s fine, we’re going to score from this corner”, and then Didier scored. Branislav was holding me so tight, he was killing me! Everything went in our favour that night, but we deserved it. We didn’t have a great season domestically in the league, but we knew winning the Champions League would make our season a successful one.
Of course, Didier then gave away a penalty in extra-time, but for some reason we all had so much confidence that Petr Cech would save it. You know sometimes where you find yourself in a situation and it’s like you already know the outcome? We just had a feeling he was going to miss. Obviously, Arjen Robben was an ex-Chelsea player, so Petr knew him very well. For some reason we just had a feeling he’d save it. That save gave the players that extra burst of energy to push through and accomplish the goal.
You can imagine what the atmosphere was like in the dressing room afterwards. Champagne was flying everywhere, we were all singing. None of us slept at all; from the game finishing to us going back to the hotel, all through the night, waking up and flying back to London and doing the parade, it was so great. That feeling was… it was the best.
What it’s like to lose a Champions League final
When you are playing for a club like Chelsea, the expectation is that you win at least one trophy every single season. In the 2007-08 campaign we didn’t win any; we came so close in the League Cup, were second in the league and lost in the FA Cup quarter-final. So we headed into the Champions League final knowing this was our last chance to win something for the fans. It was quite frustrating because we did all we could in Moscow but when the game goes to a penalty shootout no one knows which way it’s going to go.
You can imagine what the dressing room was like in Moscow after losing to Man United. Everyone was sad, and no amount of words can cheer you up in that moment. Everyone was down, some of us were crying and nobody wanted to talk. But it’s football; it happens and we have to move on. We had a break, went on holidays and came back ready to challenge again in the next season.
Once you’ve played a final like that and the result didn’t go the way you wanted, it’s easy to beat yourself up and get down about it – but we went on a break straight away which helped us all clear our heads.
Every player is different, but for me once the game finished, I tried my best to forget about it, put it to one side and move forward. Tomorrow is a new day, so you should look forward to what’s ahead of you. I’m strong enough mentally to let things go, so that helped me get over that defeat. If I sat thinking about it for too long, I’d end up bringing that negative energy to my friends and family so I decided to let it go and enjoy my holiday.
Going through that experience in 2008 made it all the more special when we went on to win the Champions League four years later.
Equaliser v Arsenal
I don’t actually remember the last time I watched that goal against Arsenal, unless it pops up on Twitter or Instagram and someone tags me, it’s not like I sit and watch it on repeat.
Whatever I did at Chelsea, I did it for the fans. Whenever any Chelsea fan sees me, the first thing they talk about is the Arsenal goal. It’s quite amazing they still remember after all these years. When you come up with a goal like that in the dying minutes, it’s quite special. The annoying thing about that game though is that we should have won it!
I had a chance late on, I was standing in front of the goal and I hit the ball over the crossbar… people don’t tend to remember that moment so it’s probably a good job I scored the goal I did because I missed the chance to win it for the team. I remember it quite well, of course, and then Frank Lampard missed the chance at the very end, hitting the post. But it was a great game to look back on now, against two top teams. To score in that fixture makes it even more special for me, though.
If Frank passed that ball to me 100 more times, I don’t think I’d be able to recreate that goal. I’m still quite mesmerised by it.
Brendan Rodgers to Chelsea?
I know Brendan Rodgers from our time at Chelsea – it would be great if he could come back and manage the team. I’m not the one to decide these things but it would be great to see him in the dugout for Chelsea.
He did very well at Liverpool and was so close to winning the title. It didn’t happen, so he went and won a lot of trophies with Celtic. He’s since returned to the Premier League, where he’s taken Leicester to a different level. If I could see him one day at Chelsea, it would be amazing.