John Obi Mikel's surprise Stoke move will benefit both club and player

John Obi Mikel left Trabzonspor by mutual agreement, but the cloud above him was made up of criticisms he levelled at the Turkish Super Lig for playing on during the coronavirus pandemic. TF-Images/Getty Images

It was not so long ago that Nigeria legend John Obi Mikel was seemingly on his way to Botafogo, with reports that the midfielder had all but agreed a deal with the legendary Brazilian club.

But with Botafogo under financial strain, made even worse by the coronavirus outbreak, that move never came to fruition, and five months later, the former Nigeria captain has joined Stoke City in the English Championship.

Unexpected as it was, the move makes sense from both the player's and the club's perspectives.

Stoke were among the favorites for promotion to the Premier League last season, but a miserable run of eight points from their first 15 games saw them heading in the opposite direction.

Manager Nathan Jones was fired and Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill swapped international football for the day to day excitement of the Championship.

O'Neill quickly racked up 34 points from 22 games, to set heady hopes of even reaching the playoff places. It was not to be -- those early struggles proved too damaging -- but the foundations and been laid and the Potters once again want to be in the reckoning for promotion when the season rolls back around.

To do so, they needed the right pieces at the right price, and O'Neill is putting it all together. Left back Morgan Fox signed on a free from Sheffield Wednesday, as did experienced striker Steven Fletcher. James Chester, who was on a one-year loan deal from Aston Villa, was signed on to a permanent contract.

And there is Mikel.

Like the others, the Nigerian signs on as a free agent. His contract with Turkish club Trabzonspor was terminated by mutual agreement, with Mikel under fire for criticizing the Turkish league when they played on at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mikel joins a midfield that already has good Championship quality. Sam Clucas notched 11 goals and three assists last season; former Liverpool man Joe Allen weighed in with four goals and two assists before suffering injury; Badou N'Diaye, who was loaned to Trabzonspor, returns to both provide familiarity and compete for a place with the Nigerian. So does compatriot Oghenekaro Etebo, whose loan spell at Getafe is now over.

When he took over, O'Neill told the Stoke Sentinel he would employ flexibility in his tactics: "I like to play with high intensity, press the game when the opportunity is there on the opposition.

"But equally I like to dominate possession of the ball as well. The Championship is a bit more difficult to have that level of dominance but the priority is to get points on the board first of all and we'll do that by whatever means possible.

"Over time we will develop a style for the team, find players to fit that style and find the right players who are capable of playing for a club of this stature."

Mikel is a player who ticks all of those boxes. No player in that dressing room, one might even say in all of the Championship, matches him for stature.

The 33-year-old comes in with bags and bags of experience from over a decade playing and winning championships with Chelsea in the Premier League and in Europe; representing Nigeria at multiple World Cup, Olympic Games, and Africa Cup of Nations tournaments.

For a team seeking to finish at the top, leadership in the dressing room, in difficult times as well as in good times, is a necessary ingredient. Stoke will find that in Mikel, a man who has not only captained his country, but done so with quiet dignity, respect, and efficiency.

On the field, he may not quite have the legs of his younger years, but Mikel has never been the quickest of players. He showed with Middlesbrough that he could mix it in the Championship, and when O'Neill needs a player to both keep possession and get ball circulation going, there are few better than an in-form Mikel.

O'Neill has played with a double pivot in midfield many a time during the course of the season. That would be a perfect set-up for the Nigerian, who may not quite have the engine to hold a midfield all on his own like he used to do with Chelsea and Nigeria.

That engine could be provided by a man he knows and has played with in Etebo, who has lungs that seem to keep going on and on. Both players enjoyed a few great games playing side by side for Nigeria. It is a role they could well reprise for the Potters.

And Mikel's excellent long range passing could provide the sort of option that would allow Stoke's pressing game to flourish. The midfielder would simply sit in and guard the back door, break up counters and release the rangy balls to set his teammates away on a counter. And he could well do so as an impact sub.

Having signed a one-year contract, both player and club have left themselves a mutually beneficial opt-out options if things do not go as planned.

If Mikel can find the same form he showed at Boro and Trabzonspor [where they were in pole position to lift the title before his departure], Stoke would find that they have got themselves a bargain.