Michael Cox analyses the understated role of the Brazilian star who has been impressing his manager in 2014/15...
Plenty of Chelsea players have rightly received credit for the Blues’ excellent opening to 2014/15, but after the 2-1 victory over QPR, Jose Mourinho didn’t highlight Cesc Fabregas’s creativity, Diego Costa’s goalscoring or Thibaut Courtois’ shot stopping. Instead, he concentrated on the work of Oscar.
The Brazilian got Chelsea up and running against QPR with his stupendous outside-of-the-boot opener, but his all-round game was also superb.
This time last season, Mourinho praised Oscar as Chelsea’s most consistent player, and while he endured an underwhelming second half of the campaign, it feels like the playmaker has returned to his best form.
“Oscar was our best player,” Mourinho said in his post-match press conference. “For 90 minutes I think he was our best player, not for the goal but for his dynamism, his transitions. He was always sharp to recover positions to press the ball.
“He was fantastic... he’s playing very well. Obviously pre-season was difficult for him after the World Cup, but he’s coming up and giving lots of balance to the team, lots of creativity, and his goal is only possible [if you are] a very talented boy.”
The most interesting aspect of Mourinho’s remarks concerns Oscar’s pressing, and his work-rate without the ball. This has been obvious throughout his Chelsea career, and it was particularly interesting that his first outstanding Chelsea performance came against Juventus in the Champions League.
It showcased the two sides of Oscar’s game. While he hit the headlines with two goals, including one genuinely world-class strike, that wasn’t all. Equally impressive, he did what so many others have failed to do – he nullified Andrea Pirlo’s creativity, shutting him down quickly when Juve had possession, before drifting either side into pockets of space at turnovers.
At the weekend, QPR clearly didn’t have anyone comparable to Pirlo, but it’s notable Mourinho is still impressed by this side of Oscar’s game. He excels at the subtle things; knowing how to position himself to cut off passing angles, knowing when to pressure if his team-mates are also in a good pressing shape, or instead dropping back and protecting players in deeper positions.
With Fabregas and Eden Hazard hardly the most disciplined players, Oscar often drops back, or shifts left, so Chelsea retain their defensive structure.
Gerrard's nightmare pt.II
Oscar’s impressive defensive effort was particularly notable in Chelsea’s 2-0 victory over Arsenal last month. There, Oscar made no fewer than 12 tackles, an amazing figure for a No.10, of which 11 took place inside Chelsea’s own half. Few of these challenges were actually successful, but no one expects Oscar to be a tough-tackling, ruthless ball-winning machine.
It’s simply about disturbing the opposition’s passing, forcing them into errors, and encouraging team-mates to help pressure in midfield. Oscar also made 5 fouls against Arsenal, in more advanced positions, also helping to disturb Arsene Wenger’s side’s rhythm.
Many might criticise Mourinho for being defensive in handing his main playmaker such strict defensive responsibilities, but the Portuguese coach hasn’t always been this way. At Inter he gave Wesley Sneijder a free role and defended with two banks of four, and at Real Madrid Mesut Ozil was often allowed to remain in positions to counter-attack, although was given stricter instructions in big games. Oscar is simply capable of being a defensive force and an attacking weapon simultaneously.
The Brazilian has a particularly interesting task this weekend against Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers controversially rested his best players for the midweek trip to Real Madrid, presumably saving them for Anfield. One, Steven Gerrard, will therefore be recalled to the side and expected to turn in a solid performance, presumably in the holding role.
Oscar, however, could be his nightmare opponent. Not only is the Brazilian capable of pressing Gerrard, he’s also likely to be dangerous with his movement, the type of combination Gerrard simply can’t cope with.
The Liverpool captain suffered the worst moment of his career in this fixture last season, with his famous slip letting in Demba Ba for Chelsea’s opener – but this weekend might be an even greater test against one of the division’s most intelligent players. With and without the ball, few current players are as effective as Oscar.