Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Junior represents a new revolution for a team frequently refered to as the “Pensioner’s Club”. He joins the recent influx of young talented players that Chelsea has brought in to hopefully usher in a new era of dominance. While Oscar came in with a burgeoning reputation, his arrival was mainly overshadowed by Belgium Star Eden Hazard.
After his first appearance against Wigan Athletic on 19 August and brief cameos against Reading and Althetico Madrid, Chelsea fans could only see mere glimpses of the Brazilian’s potential. It was the Champions League match against Juventus where he announced himself onto the big stage.
On that day, Oscar scored a brace against the Italian side. One of the goals included a spectacular 25 yard curler which left Gianluigi Buffon helpless. While the team eventually drew 2-2, that night signaled the rise of a star; the Brazilian finally showed why Chelsea forked out 25 million Euros to buy him from Internacional.
At only 20 years of age, Oscar has already amassed a great deal of experience. A regular starter and an Olympic finalist for the Brazil international team, Oscar is frequently mentioned along with the likes of Neymar and Lucas as one of the leading lights of Brazilian football. It is not hard to see why.
Oscar has made a name for himself as an excellent playmaker. His play style is frequently compared to Kaka or Mesut Ozil due to his great vision, solid dribbling and impressive shooting abilities. These unique qualities make him the perfect playmaker that Chelsea has tried for the last few years to find. Oscar’s main strength is in his ability to dictate play and tempo. He also has the ability to give accurate through balls through to strikers as well as open up space with his creative runs. When on song, he is a nightmare to deal with. At Internacional, Oscar recorded 13 goals and 13 assists from a midfield role, proving his ability to score as well as create for the team. Furthermore, his potential was noticed by ex-Brazil coach Mano Menezes, who gave the youngster the chance to become the main pivot of the side’s attacking play, a role he has played to aplomb.
At Chelsea, Oscar’s introductions gave Chelsea fans hope for great things to come. For the next few games, the fearsome attacking triumvirate of Hazard, Mata and Oscar terrorized premier league defenses. Oscar would operate from a free role just behind striker Torres supported by Mata and Hazard on the wings.
Sadly, a bad run of form caused the team’s subsequent elimination from the Champions league and exposed weaknesses in the Chelsea side. The attacking midfield of Mata Hazard and Oscar were seen to be weak defensively, a painful truth that led to the side’s leaky defense. As Robert Di Matteo paid the price for the side’s failure, Oscar would have known that change was imminent at Stamford Bridge.
Rafael Benitez’s appointment as Chelsea manager spelled the end to Oscar’s once guaranteed starting spot.
It is clear that three starts in seven games for the Brazilian shows the lack of faith Benitez has in Oscar, despite claims to the media that there is no rift between the player and himself. As it stands, he is second choice behind the club’s best player Mata in the free role behind Torres. Furthermore, the rise of David Luiz as a midfielder has denied Oscar a chance to play as a creative holding midfielder.
Ultimately, Oscar’s plight is down to Benitez’s tactics. Benitez’s favors the use of a strict 4-2-3-1 formation. A standard back four would be shielded by a midfield dual pivot consisting of a creator and a holding midfielder (much like the Xabi Alonso and Mascherano pivot which propelled Liverpool to success). The attacking 3 would consist of one attacking midfielder in a free role while two wingers were tasked to provide width and most importantly, cover when defending. Benitez drills his team to defend deep with two banks of four when attacked. Hence, it was important for Benitez’s wingers to be able to perform their defensive duties diligently for the tactics to work. Oscar’s defensive frailties cost him his role in the side.
While Oscar is terrific going forward, the Brazilian is not the best defender. Oscar’s tendency to go after the ball rather than maintain defensive rigidness opens up space for others to exploit. This is a key problem for Benitez, a problem he has seemingly rectified by fielding Victor Moses on the right and shifting Mata in to the free role behind Torres. Moses is more diligent in tracking back and is the most natural winger in the squad. On the other hand, Mata’s high work rate and understanding with Torres makes him a better fit.
Some might point to the inclusion of Hazard over Oscar. The Belgium star has been equally guilty in committing defensive mistakes. However, given his high profile transfer, Benitez will know better than to risk incurring the wrath of Roman Abramovich by benching his golden boy.
Oscar’s plight is not unique and he stands at a crossroads just like many Chelsea starlets before him.
One might remember Jon Obi Mikel, a promising attacking midfielder that was forced away from what he did best. Mikel joined Chelsea as Nigeria’s top attacking talent. Many hoped that he could fulfill his potential at the big stage with Chelsea. Years later, Mikel is now a holding midfielder, constantly criticised for being slow and uncreative.
Mikel’s transformation highlights a disturbing trend that has continued among Chelsea managers even after Mourinho’s exit. Many attribute this to the constant stress of the job, whereby managers are hard pressed to give results, neglecting future plans for the club. As such, youngsters are rarely tried while existing players are forced to fit into a game plan that will win games, rather than help them develop their own style of play. Mikel was forced to become an understudy to Claude Makelele by Mourinho who needed cover for his star man, that decision ruined Mikel’s vision and creativity.
Sadly, that stark prospect might happen to Oscar if carried on. While others might believe that Oscar may be a good holding midfielder, the perils of such a switch in position has been the doom of many talented attacking midfielders such as Anderson from Manchester United. I feel that Oscar remains at his best in a free role, where he has the freedom to affect play and create chances. Taking that away and shackling him with defensive responsibilities might ruin that special quality that has endeared him to many.
While I am not urging Rafa Benitez to forsake his strategies just to incorporate Oscar into the team, I hope Chelsea will not make the same mistake as they did with the management of Mikel. Many might point out that Mikel became a decent holding midfielder after all. Yet the real question remains, if Mikel was allowed to pursue his original intended path, would he be a better player than he is today?
I hope we do not ask ourselves that question with Oscar five years down the road.