Chelsea need Oscar to be consistent
With some intelligent signings, Chelsea are starting to look increasingly like a team created by Jose Mourinho, and expectations have risen markedly. Diego Costa will assume the goal-scoring responsibilities, Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard the creativity, and Thibaut Courtois the shield.
In the midst of them all lies a classy footballer, but one who arguably has yet to show his very best in a Blue shirt.
Oscar joined Chelsea for a reported 25 million pounds in the summer of 2012 and has supplied some touches of genius that one would expect from a Brazilian playmaker. The wonder goal in his debut against Juventus in the Champions League promised a glut of incredulous moments, and while they manifest themselves from time to time, they have not been as regular as many would have wished.
That is not to say that his performances have been poor. Rather, he has been unable to deliver on a consistent basis throughout the entirety of a season.
Last season, Oscar began as if he was a man on a mission. Having been given the nod ahead of Juan Mata, the Brazilian grabbed the opportunity and was imperious in the No. 10 role for the first five months of the season. There were goals and assists, plus slick interchanging with Eden Hazard that made the jaw drop and the mouth water. So complete were his displays that Mourinho saw fit to cash in on Mata for 37 million pounds when Manchester United came calling.
The problem for Oscar is that the Spaniard's departure seemed to signal a sea change in his performances. The crispness of his passing faded, the goals dried up and the general standard of his decision-making slumped significantly. While some Chelsea supporters could understand why their two-time player of the year had been sold when Oscar was ruling the roost, his subsequent dip in form and omission from the team caused others to question the wisdom of the sale.
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While comparisons with Mata might be understandable given that Oscar has ostensibly usurped Mata's position within the team, they are not entirely fair. The pair might nominally be named in the same place on the team sheet, but they offer different qualities.
Juan Mata plays much more like a second striker, expected to score as many as he creates. Oscar is more of an orthodox midfielder, albeit one whose outlook is more offensive than Ramires', for example.
Just as one would never countenance placing Mata in an authentic midfield two or three, it would be strange to see Oscar played as an auxiliary striker. The two share some similar virtues but they are not the same.
Highlighting that discrepancy, part of Oscar's duties under Mourinho is to provide defensive cover from an advanced position, a trait not normally associated with a classic No. 10. Recovering the ball high up the pitch is an important aspect of how the manager wants to play, however, and the Brazilian's proficiency in this regard no doubt supplied some of the reasoning behind his selection.
His ability to play a deeper role also means that he can drop into midfield when Fabregas surges forward. The rotation between the two players can serve to upset opposing midfield units while offering similar creative threats.
Something that has to be factored in when assessing Oscar's Chelsea career to date is his workload, which has been nothing short of staggering over the past couple of years. Having just played the first half of the Brazilian season before participating in the 2012 Olympics, he then made 70 appearances for club and country during the following campaign before featuring in 54 games last season.
With the sheer volume of matches comes inevitable fatigue, both mental and physical, so it is unsurprising that his contribution has faded in the second half of each of his campaigns. In a curious coincidence, the same was true of Mata, who found his own exceptional standards tough to maintain in the latter parts of his two full seasons at Stamford Bridge.
Unfortunately for Oscar, it doesn't look as if his workload is going to be lightened anytime soon. Having spent the last three summers competing at major international tournaments -- Olympics in 2012, Confederations Cup in 2013, World Cup in 2014 -- the 22-year-old would clearly benefit from a summer of rest and recuperation, not to mention a thorough preseason programme alongside his Chelsea teammates.
But assuming that new national team boss Dunga still sees him as an integral part of his Brazil setup, Oscar will once again be called upon after his domestic campaign has concluded in May. The Selecao will be busy, with the Copa America due to take place in Chile during June and July of next year.
As for the current season, Oscar has made a decent start. Fabregas and Costa deservedly grabbed the headlines against Burnley, although Oscar was quietly efficient in linking the play.
In the home win over Leicester and in keeping with his teammates, he endured a difficult first half in which he misplaced passes and often turned into traffic. Thankfully, his display revolved 180 degrees after the break. From being more of a liability than a blessing, Oscar was probably second only to Branislav Ivanovic in terms of performance by the time the final whistle blew.
Striking the post, drawing defenders and generally upping the tempo, he became the fulcrum for the team's attacking display. His jinking run and slide-rule pass gave Ivanovic the space to tee up Costa for the game's opening goal -- the transformation complete both for team and individual.
The test now is for Oscar to replicate this coming weekend at Everton the standard he showed during the second half Saturday. The talent is most certainly there; all that remains is for Oscar to display it on a consistent basis.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.