Essien started his career playing for Liberty Professionals in Ghana. In 2000, he moved to France joining Bastia. Essien spent three seasons at the club appearing in over 60 matches before joining Ligue 1 title holders Olympique Lyonnais in 2003. At Lyon, Essien won back-to-back league titles in 2003–04 and 2004–05 and also played in the UEFA Champions League for the first time. During his five-year stint in France, he acquired French citizenship. In 2005, Essien signed with Chelsea for a fee of £24.4 million and, at the time of his signing, was the most expensive African footballer in history. At Chelsea, Essien helped the club win the Premier League in 2006 and 2010, as well as three FA Cups and one Football League Cup. He won the UEFA Champions League in 2012, while also placing as runner up in the 2008 UEFA Champions League. He has won the Chelsea Goal of the Season award twice, in the 2006–07 and 2008–09 seasons.
Essien is a Ghanaian international. At youth level, he represented his country at the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship and 2001 FIFA World Youth Championship with the latter team finishing as runner-up. Essien made his senior team debut in January 2002 and has represented his nation at three Africa Cup of Nations tournaments. Essein has also represented Ghana at the 2006, 2010, and 2014 FIFA World Cups.
Born in Accra to Aba Gyandoh and James Essien, Essien attended Gomoa Nyanyano DC Primary and JSS. He began his football career after graduating from St. Augustine's College in Cape Coast, playing at a local club called Liberty Professionals.
Essien broke through when he played in the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship in New Zealand. European scouts began to take notice, and Essien had a trial at Manchester United in April 2000. He played in the club's under-17 team's defeat to Derby County.
Manchester United offered him a contract, but he was ineligible to obtain work permit in the UK. He therefore considered joining Belgian feeder club Royal Antwerp until he was eligible to move to England. His mother meanwhile preferred a move to France instead.
In July 2000, Essien was signed by Division 1 club Bastia and made his debut for the club on 30 September 2000 in a league match against Metz appearing as a substitute for captain Laurent Casanova. Essien did not immediately command a consistent place in the team, being deployed in various positions in the back four. He ultimately finished the 2000–01 campaign with only 13 league appearances and one goal, which came in the return leg against Metz in a 3–2 defeat. The following season, Essien was given an opportunity by manager Robert Nouzaret to play in central midfield and flourished in this new role. Essien formed midfield partnerships with Nicolas Dieuze and Cyril Jeunechamp and scored vital goals in victories over Nantes, Lorient, and Guingamp. On 12 January 2002, Essien scored the equalising goal against Marseille at the Stade Vélodrome to even the match at 2–2. He also scored a goal in the Coupe de la Ligue against Le Mans. Future Chelsea teammate Didier Drogba converted a goal for Le Mans in the match.
In the 2002–03 season, Essien developed into an undisputed starter under new manager Gérard Gili. However, his tenacious and physical style of play also began to take form as he collected a staggering 12 yellow cards in league play. He opened the new campaign by scoring on his season debut against Lens in a 1–1 draw and converted five more league goals, which included one in a surprising 2–0 victory over the defending champions Lyon. Following the campaign, in which Bastia finished mid-table for the third consecutive season, Essien drew interest from Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon, and Marseille.
Paris Saint-Germain made Bastia the best offer and it was accepted, but Essien rejected PSG's contract offer, and instead agreed terms with the two-time defending champions Lyon, who paid Bastia €7.8 million for the transfer. Upon his arrival, Essien was assigned the number 4 shirt and played as a box-to-box midfielder, which allowed him the freedom to protect and assist playmaker Juninho while defensive midfielders Edmilson and Mahamadou Diarra assisted the defence and directed the distribution. He made his club debut in the team's 2003 Trophée des champions match against Auxerre on 27 July 2003. In just the fifth minute of play, Essien scored his first goal for the club. Four minutes later, Diarra netted a goal. Lyon won the match 2–1 giving Essien his first club honour as a player. In just the third match of the campaign, Essien scored his first league goal for the club in a 3–1 victory over AS Monaco. He featured regularly for the rest of the campaign making 33 more league appearances and scoring two more goals against Bordeaux and Rennes, respectively. On 23 May 2004, Lyon sealed their third consecutive league title by defeating Lille 3–0 at the Stade Gerland. Essien appeared as a substitute in the match. In the UEFA Champions League, Essien appeared in eight of the ten matches Lyon contested and the club was ultimately eliminated by Portuguese club and the eventual champions Porto.
In his final season at Lyon, Essien appeared in all but one league match as Lyon were crowned champions for the fourth straight season. The match he missed was as a result of a red card endured in the previous league match. Essien also scored three goals and collected 11 yellow cards, tied for second-worst in the league. His performances in the league resulted in him being voted the 2005 Player of the Year by France's National Union of Professional Footballers (UNFP). Essien also helped Lyon to reach the quarter-finals of the 2004-05 UEFA Champions League where he put in dynamic performances and scored five goals in the tournament. Lyon were eventually eliminated from the tournament in a penalty shoot-out against PSV. At the end of the season, he was named Ligue 1 Player of the Year. His honour started a record streak of UNFP Player of the Year awards for Lyon players, with the streak coming to an end in 2008 following Karim Benzema's victory. He was also nominated for the 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year Award. He placed 22nd in 2005. His acclaim drew attention from Chelsea which he eventually signed for.
On 14 August 2005, Lyon and Chelsea agreed a £24.4 million fee for the Ghanaian, finally ending one of the longest-running transfer sagas. At the time, the fee made Essien Chelsea's most expensive signing of all time, beating the £24 million they paid for Didier Drogba the previous summer. The transfer went through on 19 August. The transfer came under scrutiny in the Stevens inquiry report, which expressed concerns because of the lack of co-operation from agents Pini Zahavi and Barry Silkman.
He made his debut as a second half substitute against Arsenal on 21 August 2005, wearing the number 5 on his shirt. The game ended with a 1–0 victory to Chelsea. He made an assist in his full debut against West Bromwich Albion, and he replaced the injured Claude Makélélé in the defensive midfield role against Sunderland in the 2–0 win on 10 September 2005. He soon cemented his place in José Mourinho's side, starting in 31 domestic league games, and 11 appearances in the other cup competitions.
On 15 December 2005, he was handed a two-match ban by UEFA for a controversial tackle on Dietmar Hamann, which resulted in his suspension from Chelsea's Champions League second round tie with eventual European champions Barcelona. Essien apologised to Hamann for the challenge – stating while he desires to be perceived as a player who "unsettles" opponents, he was not a malicious or an unsporting player; Hamann publicly accepted Essien's apology. In January 2006, Essien was himself stretchered off the field, after a challenge from West Ham United captain Nigel Reo-Coker, and was sidelined for three weeks.
Essien scored his first goal for Chelsea from a low cross from Shaun Wright-Phillips on 11 March 2006, in a 2–1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur. His second goal came on 17 April 2006, against Everton with a powerful strike after an assertive burst through the defensive line. Essien ended his maiden season in England with two goals, both in the Premier League.
Essien was nominated for the 2006 FIFA World Player of the Year Award on 12 October 2006 where he placed 22nd. One week later, he was nominated for the 2006 Ballon d'Or. He was voted as the third Best African Footballer of the Year in 2006, a feat he achieved in 2005 as well. He won the 2006 BBC African footballer of the year award.
The following season Essien scored several important goals including his first Champions League goal for Chelsea in a 2–0 victory over Werder Bremen of Germany on 12 September 2006. Later in the competition, Essien scored a late winner in the quarter-final second leg against Valencia at the Mestalla Stadium to send Chelsea through to the semi-finals with a 2–1 victory on the night, and 3–2 win on aggregate. It was his first match back in the team after several weeks out with a knee injury. Essien also scored a stunning late equaliser at home against Arsenal on 10 December 2006, as the game was going to end Chelsea's long unbeaten run.
On 15 May 2007, Chelsea fans voted Essien as Chelsea Player of the Year for his contributions in the 2006–07 season, becoming the first African to receive the honour. His late dramatic equalising goal against Arsenal was also voted as Chelsea Goal of the Season for 2006–07.
On 12 August 2007, Essien grabbed the winner with his first goal of the 2007–08 Premier League campaign, as Chelsea defeated Birmingham City, to set an English record for unbeaten league matches at home – eclipsing Liverpool's previous top-flight record of 63 set between 1978 and 1981.
On 10 October 2007, he was nominated for the prestigious 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year Award for the third consecutive year and on 21 October 2007 Essien was also nominated for the 2007 Ballon d'Or Award for the third consecutive year as well. He was voted 15th Best Player in the World at the 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year Awards. On 12 December 2007, Essien was nominated for the 2007 African Footballer of the Year a third consecutive time he had been nominated. He was runner-up to that year's winner Frédéric Kanouté.
On 22 July 2008, Essien signed a new five-year deal with Chelsea, keeping him at the club until 2013. He also extended his contract on 12 March 2007.
It was feared Essien would miss the 2008–09 Premier League season after sustaining anterior cruciate ligament damage on 5 September while playing for Ghana. On 7 March 2009, however, he came on as a substitute in the second half of the FA Cup game against Coventry City. In his second game back from the knee injury, Essien scored just before half time to give Chelsea a vital away goal against Juventus in the Champions League first knockout round. Chelsea went on the draw the match 2–2 and through to the quarter-finals 3–2 on aggregate. He made his first league start from injury against Manchester City, and scored the only goal in the match.
On 6 May 2009, Essien scored a stunning left-footed volley in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, a tie that Chelsea ultimately lost due to the away goal rule. The goal was later voted as Chelsea's goal of the season by the club's fans.
In the 2009–10 Premier League season Essien put in an excellent performance against Blackburn Rovers on 24 October 2009 and scored his first goal of the season with a swerving 35-yard shot on 52 minutes in a 5–0 victory at Stamford Bridge. He scored his first brace for Chelsea against Wolverhampton Wanderers with a header and a low shot from outside the box, and came close to completing his first hat-trick for the club with a flurry of second half shots, one of which was tipped onto the bar by Wolves goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey. Essien was injured on international duty during the 2010 African Nations Cup and missed the rest of the English domestic season. On 4 June 2010, Essien signed a two-year extension to his existing contract that will keep him at the club until 2015. Essien returned to action on 17 July 2010 in a friendly against Crystal Palace and scored the only goal of the match to give Chelsea the win.
After missing the 2010 FIFA World Cup through injury, Essien had a bright start to the season for Chelsea. He scored the only goal in a pre-season friendly win against Crystal Palace and was an ever-present in Chelsea's unbeaten month of August. He scored a brace against West Ham United and he scored against MŠK Žilina in the Champions League. Essien also put in impressive performances against Marseille, Blackburn Rovers, and Fulham, a game in which he scored the only goal and received a red card. Essien again picked up an injury and missed two months of the season, during which Chelsea won just one out of nine games. He returned to score in the penalty shoot-out loss in the FA Cup against Everton but ultimately had a poor second half of the season. After Chelsea’s final game, the Ghana Football Association announced Essien had returned to the international squad.
In pre-season training for the 2011–12 Premier League season, Essien ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus, and received surgery on 11 July 2011. His recovery was said to take up to six months. Essien, however, began training lightly in late November 2011 and made his comeback on 9 January 2012, playing 75 minutes of the reserves' 3–2 defeat to West Brom. He made his 150th Premier League appearance for Chelsea as a substitute in a 1–0 win over Sunderland. On 21 January 2012, Essien featured as late substitute in Chelsea's 0–0 draw with Norwich City at Carrow Road.
Due to missing most of the beginning half of the 2011–12 Premier League season Essien was unable to gain favour with manager André Villas-Boas. On 21 February 2012, during a Champions League match against Napoli, Villas-Boas left Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Ashley Cole on the bench. Chelsea lost 3–1 and the club's technical director asked for an explanation of the team selection on behalf of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. On 4 March 2012, following a 1–0 league defeat against West Brom which left Chelsea three points adrift of Arsenal in the battle for fourth place in the Premier League, Villas-Boas was relieved of his managerial duties by Chelsea, with assistant manager Roberto Di Matteo being appointed as caretaker manager on an interim basis until the end of the season. New manager Roberto Di Matteo immediately showed favour towards veteran Chelsea players like Essein, Lampard and John Terry who were surprisingly benched by André Villas-Boas in critical fixtures. Subsequently, Essein started in Chelsea's second leg champions league fixture against Napoli with Chelsea winning 4-1 (5-4 agg) in an extremely entertaining game allowing Chelsea to Advance to the 2011–12 UEFA Champions League Quarter Final where they met S.L. Benfica. Essein was subsequently featured in the rest of Chelsea's 2011–12 UEFA Champions League run as an unused substitute with Chelsea defeating Benfica, FC Barcelona, and finally FC Bayern Munich in the 2012 UEFA Champions League Final granting The Blues their first UEFA Champions League crown and making Chelsea the first London based Club to gain the achievement.
On 31 August 2012, Essien signed a season-long loan deal with Real Madrid, linking him up with José Mourinho, the manager who signed him for Chelsea. At his introductory press conference with Real Madrid, Mourinho affectionally referred to Essein as his son while Essein referred to Mourinho as his "Daddy". On 3 November 2012, Essien scored his first goal for Real Madrid. During the last game of the season – and Essien's last game as a Madrid player – Essien scored his second goal for Madrid, which he dedicated to Mourinho.
Essien signed for Italian club Milan on a one-and-a-half-year contract on 27 January 2014.
On 2 June 2015, Essien signed a two-year-contract with Greek club Panathinaikos. The deal made him the club's highest-paid player, with an annual salary of €800,000. He spent the first three months of the season recovering from a leg injury. He was due to make his debut on 21 November 2015 against Panathinaikos' archrivals Olympiacos, but the match was cancelled. He played his first match a week later. On 24 January 2016, he scored his first goal for Panathinaikos in a 2–0 away league win over Levadiakos. After a season in Greece, Essien was left out of Panathinaikos' squad for the 2016–17 season, with an expectation that he would be released. His termination by the club was confirmed almost three months later, after the two parties reached a mutual agreement over his release.
He rejected an offer from Australian A-League club Melbourne Victory in September 2016.
On 13 March 2017, Essien joined the Indonesian club side Persib Bandung. He signed a deal on Monday with the option to extend his stay for a further 12 months at the end of the season. He inherited the number 5 shirt for the 2017 Liga 1 season, the same one he wore during his nine years at Chelsea.
Speaking about his move to the Southeast Asia country, Essien told the club's official website: "I hope I am the prelude to other world players moving to Indonesia.
On 22 April 2017, Essien scored his first goal from the header in a 2–2 draw over PS TNI.
Essien's international career started with the Ghana under-17 national team, the Black Starlets, when he played in the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Championship in New Zealand and won the bronze medal. In 2001, despite being one of the youngest players in the tournament, Essien took part in the 2001 FIFA World Youth Championship with the Black Satellites in Argentina, where the nation finished runners-up to Argentina. His exceptional performances captured the attention of many and was widely tipped to be one of Africa's next rising stars.
Essien made his competitive senior debut in the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations against Morocco on 21 January 2002. but had played for Ghana in a pre-tournament friendly against Egypt on 4 January 2002.
On 16 May 2006, Essien was selected to be part of the team that represented Ghana at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. He played in midfield with team captain Stephen Appiah and Sulley Muntari. Essien played in Ghana's 0–2 defeat to Italy, their 2–0 victory over the Czech Republic, and the 2–1 victory over the United States, and helped Ghana become the only African team to reach the second round of the 2006 World Cup. Essien, however, was suspended for Ghana's second round match against Brazil and could only watch as Ghana lost 0–3. Upon the team's return to Ghana, Essien said that the team had gained invaluable experience and would be aiming to make the next finals, held in Africa for the first time in the tournament's history at the 2010 World Cup.
In the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations, Essien turned in another brilliant performance, driving the team to the semi-finals with his power-packed performances. In the quarter-final against Nigeria, when team captain John Mensah was dismissed on the stroke of the hour for a professional foul on Nigeria's Peter Odemwingie, Essien took over the captaincy for the rest of the game and eventually won 2–1. He was voted as an All-Star Player during the tournament. The Team of the Tournament was decided by the Technical Study Group (TSG) after careful observations of all the tournament's matches.
During an international match played against Libya on 5 September 2008, Essien ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament playing for Ghana in the World Cup qualification stage and was out of action for six months, missing the majority of the 2008–09 season, before returning on 4 March to play for Chelsea Reserves against Aston Villa Reserves. He scored the last goal in the 4–3 loss. He still managed to take part in 10 of Ghana's 11 qualification matches, clocking up more than 800 minutes of game time, as Ghana finished at the top of their group and sealed a spot at the World Cup. It was announced on 27 May 2010 that Essien would miss the World Cup after he was told that he would not fully recover from his knee injury until the end of July, more than two weeks after the tournament had ended. Since then, Essien has announced that he will be standing down from the Ghana national side for the near future in order to focus on his career with Chelsea, having suffered two significant injuries while playing for Ghana in recent years. Having recovered from those injuries, Essien subsequently promised his availability to his nation "very soon".
Essien returned to Ghana's squad in August 2013 for the team's final 2014 World Cup qualifiers. He appeared as a second-half substitute in a 2–1 defeat of Zambia as the Black Stars secured qualification to the final round. He started in both play-off matches against Egypt and was named in Ghana's squad for the tournament finals. He made one appearance, coming on as a second-half substitute in the opening 2–1 defeat to the United States.As of 24 September 2017