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Black History Month: Make way for The Bison

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Michael Essien’s physicality made him a joy to watch.

Chelsea v Blackburn Rovers - Premier League Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images

In the last 20 years, there has been a push towards having a midfielder that can play with physicality. They need good defense and technique, but they also need to be a guy that can have an eye for goal while letting everyone on the field know that the midfield was theirs. Michael Essien is a player who helped define that type of role during the first decade or so of the 21st century.

Born in Ghana, Essien grew up on the capital streets of Accra, beginning his soccer career after graduating from Catholic school. He started with a local club in the Ghana Premier League, Liberty Professionals, playing well enough to get called up to Ghana’s U-17 World Cup team. There, he had a breakout tournament, and he drew the interest of teams all across Europe.

He received a trial at Manchester United in April 2000, but while they offered him a contract, Michael could not obtain a work permit to play in England. While he considered the opportunity to play in Belgium until he could get the work permit, his mother preferred he move to France.

Essien signed with Bastia in July 2000 and made his debut a couple months later. He initially played mostly on the back line, but could not find a consistent spot in the lineup. He had 15 appearances with 1 goal on the season. The following season, he was moved to the midfield, and his play took off. He scored 5 goals in 30 appearances across all competitions in his second season, the benefit of forming midfield partnerships with his teammates that allowed them all the ability to flourish.

By the 2002-2003 season, Michael Essien was the undisputed starter, and it was his physical, tenacious play that kept him on the field. While he was known for getting yellow cards because of the physical nature of his play, he also could score goals. He added 6 goals during that campaign as the main starter at central midfield. After the season, he drew interest from many big clubs, including Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille. Ultimately, he signed with Olympique Lyonnais.

Playing next to legendary playmaker Juninho and in front of Edmílson and Mahamadou Diarra, Essien settled into the box-to-box role very quickly. He scored 5 minutes into his debut for the club, winning the Trophée des Champions for Lyon. In total, he made 96 appearances for Lyon, scoring 13 goals and helping the club to league titles in both seasons he appeared for them. He won the 2005 Player of the Year award by Ligue 1 as well as its players association. He helped lead the club to the Champions League quarterfinals, where they lost on penalties to PSV Eindhoven.

In August 2005, Michael Essien moved to Chelsea in a £24.4 million deal. At the time, it was the largest transfer deal in Chelsea’s history, just surpassing the £24 million fee they paid for Didier Drogba the year before. He would go on to be one of Chelsea’s greatest players as he had the lock on the box-to-box role for 8 seasons with the club. He logged over 250 appearances for the Blues, scoring 25 goals and being an instrumental part of Chelsea’s success in that time frame. During his time in Southwest London, Chelsea won 2 Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups, 1 League Cup, and 1 Community Shield. In 2008, they reached the Champions League final, where they would lose on penalties to Manchester United.

They returned to the Champions League final in 2012, where they faced Bayern Munich at their home ground of Allianz Arena. Finally, Essien was able to lift the Champions League trophy, after an epic match that saw Chelsea exorcise their demons and beat the home team on penalties. That run to the title saw them go through Napoli, Benfica, and FC Barcelona on their way to Munich.

Towards the end of his time at Stamford Bridge, Essien went out for one season on loan to Real Madrid. There, he quickly moved into the lineup under former coach Jose Mourinho, who coached him at Chelsea, and he was an integral part of the offense in his season there. He logged 35 appearances and scored 2 goals in his time at the Bernabeu before returning to Chelsea to finish out his time there. Essien finished his career with stops at AC Milan, Panathinaikos, Persib Bandung of Indonesia and Sabail FK of Azerbaijan before he officially retired from the game last year.

Essien’s physical style of play may have lent himself to get a lot of yellow cards, but it was integral in freeing up his teammates to be creative on the ball and have the space to operate. His play gave him his nickname, “The Bison.” He also combined vision, intelligence and leadership with the versatility to cover several positions on the field. But above all, he had a work rate that few could copy, and his tenacity allowed him to win balls and keep the opposition timid as he set up many of the playmakers on his team to create and score. His role wasn’t one that was always reflected on the stats sheet, but it was rare that he didn’t have an impact on the game.

His play was noticed early on by Ghana’s national team, with his U-17 success and helping the U-20s to the World Cup final in 2001. He made his senior debut in a friendly against Egypt that was a warmup match for the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations and made the cut for that tournament’s roster. He quickly became a regular starter for the team as he joined Stephen Appiah and Sulley Muntari in the Black Stars’ midfield. He made the 2006 World Cup roster, helping Ghana to become Africa’s lone representative in the knockout stage. There, they lost to Brazil, with Essien suspended due to yellow card accumulation.

They finished in 3rd place in the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations and reached the final in 2010. However, due to injuries he had picked up to his knee that he battled through during the entirety of World Cup qualifying, he missed out on the 2010 World Cup. He used the time to announce that he was taking a break to focus on his club career and to get healthy. He became healthy enough to return in August 2013 to help the Black Stars to the 2014 World Cup, and was on the roster for that tournament in Brazil, appearing against the United States in their first match.

Michael Essien will go down as one of Africa’s greatest players ever. He was a success at every level of the game, and he made a huge impact on the game at every stop. If you’re a creative player who has the space to operate on the field, you probably have a teammate that plays in a way that gives you that room. Thank Michael Essien for the inspiration.

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For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.