Friday, 1 November 2013

Just How Good Is Oscar?

After a blistering start to the season the answer has to be even better than we thought.

At the height of all the #freeJuanMata brouhaha Jose would most often deal with the questions over why he dared to leave the Spaniard out with one simple response, Mata wasn’t playing because he had Oscar.  After the start to the season that they’ve had you have to say Jose’s already been proven right.

Last year, in his first season in England as pleasing on the eye as his play invariably was there was always a temptation to wonder exactly what he was for.  In an era where football is taken more seriously than ever and the strict adherence to prescribed formations is almost mandatory Oscar was one of those players who you couldn’t immediately see fitting in.  The fact he looks about fourteen didn’t help.  With the benefit of hindsight a slightly hit and miss debut season spent in apprenticeship on the wing and bench has both player and club now reaping the benefits.

It’s worth repeating that Oscar is their top scorer this season, netting four in nine games, already a third of his total for last season.  At no point in his career has he been unnoticed.  We’re talking about a player who scored a hat-trick in an Under 20 World Cup Final and moved to Chelsea aged only 20 for a reported £25 million.  His biggest achievement might be managing to not be overburdened with expectation since his move.  He possibly has Hazard to thank for that.  Eden signed at the same time as one of the most sought after young talents in Europe, tweeting hints about who he’d sign for like a social media focussed Lebron James.  In comparison Oscar snuck through the back door.  After both having last season to bed in it was always likely they’d improve this season.  In the case of Hazard he was many people’s dark horse for player of the year.  So far Oscar is easily outperforming him.

At 22 he already has the best of pedigrees.  He’s won the Europa League and Brazilian Championship.  He’s scored goals against the very best in the Premier League and a hall of famer against Juventus in the Champions League.  Playing as Brazil’s number 10 he’s already won the Confederation’s Cup.  He is flawless technically.  In short he should already have a bigger reputation than he has.  That he hasn’t is probably down to his nationality, Brazil have that many prodigies that the term next big thing for them is never owned, only ever borrowed.  Attention wise he probably owes Neymar about as much as he owes Hazard.

It’s amazing how instantly pivotal he’s been to Jose’s Chelsea 2.0.  In the three behind the striker he’s been first picked, notably ahead of Mata but also in front of Hazard.  Last season Benitez spoke publically about how it was impossible to fit Mata, Hazard and Oscar in the same team without sacrificing defensive solidarity.  For the big games Oscar was invariably the one to miss out.  Mourinho seems to have come to the same conclusion.  For him though the solution lies in dropping Mata.  From the start Oscar has been his first pick and always at 10.  In a squad that must have claim to more of them than any other that must have given him some boost in confidence.  As Jose says it’s not like Brazil are short of options there either. 

In the past he’s been compared in style with Mesut Ozil.  They interpret the 10 position in similar ways, although Oscar isn’t possessed of such a distinctive languid running style and doesn’t yet interpret the possibilities of space as well as the German.  But then does anyone?  Interestingly Mourinho had Ozil as his 10 throughout his time at Madrid.  Clearly he sees similarities, in result if not style.

It’s tempting to see Brazil’s victory over Spain this summer as proof that the idea of a team of rotating playmakers on a carousel is at an end.  Time and next summer will tell.  The reason Jose gives when pressed about his preference for Oscar over Mata is that the Brazilian will put in more running.  Key for pressing but just as importantly for the speed in which counterattacks can be launched.  At Real and this season with Chelsea the focus on hitting teams on the break is if not everything then pretty damn close.  The most effective way to do that is to move the ball as quickly as possible down the flanks, where the space has been left by the opposition (interestingly Brazil are also increasingly trying to play this way).  A player like Mata with their ability to run games through measured possession becomes less important when playing like this.  Whatever you think of the style, Oscar is unarguably better suited to it.

And maybe that’s why for a player as accomplished as he is he can still be said to be underappreciated, it’s tough to pin down exactly what makes him excellent.  He doesn’t dictate play with a hundred small passes.  He doesn’t rake probing balls the length of the pitch.  He doesn’t burn past full backs with his pace.  He’s merely able to find space and be precise when the ball arrives.  As such he’s close to how other new 10s interpret the game, a further forward Toni Kroos, a more compact Mesut Ozil, a less direct Thomas Muller (and it’s not an accident they’re all German, they’re currently producing more of them than any other country, including Spain).  As with them the proof in Oscar’s ability is how effective his team look with him in it. 

If proof was needed of how his reputation is growing English commentators have started changing how they say his name.  Instead of saying it like it had ‘the Grouch’ afterwards they’ve started breaking it up, Os-car with a gap in the middle.  No clue if this is more accurate but there’s a history of commentators only starting to do this when they’re sure the player in question will be going places.  Os-car has a bright future.

Ashley prefers the sound of silence
For a man apparently so set on never publically explaining his decisions Mike Ashley sure doesn’t like anyone else commenting on them.  Three local newspapers, the Chronicle, Journal and Sunday Sun are now banned from the Newcastle ground for covering a protest march before the Liverpool game.  This ban also apparently extends to away press conferences, as the press officer and Pardew refused to take questions from journalists from the three papers involved after the Sunderland defeat (a sequence of events that apparently had several South Korean journalists present questioning whether they were allowed to ask questions or not).  That Ashley (and other chairmen; Port Vale’s has recently banned their local paper the Stoke Sentinel) think that banning sections of the press will ultimately lead to more favourable coverage just shows the delusion that football can live under.  Wild comments about freedom of press aside, and there’s been some cracking coverage this week, it really does defy belief that Ashley thinks that banning papers is the best way to get his point across.  To contrast with an owner down the road who hasn’t been known for explaining his actions Ellis Short printed an apology in the pre-derby Sunderland program for some of the mistakes he’d made that have left his club in trouble.  Whatever you think of how Ashley is running his club it’s unarguable that more communication from him would be welcome from pretty much everyone.  The visit of an in form Chelsea team on Saturday is the last thing they need.  With Pardew apparently fighting to keep his job and almost certain to face questions about subjects non-football related the attention at Newcastle once again is everywhere it shouldn’t be. 

Arsenal can be contenders
Watching Chelsea beat Arsenal this week was confirmation of what should have been fairly obvious, although their team is good enough to challenge for honours this season their squad isn’t.  While both teams rested players the quality of the players Chelsea brought in was a cut above their opponents.  Broadly it’s tough to see a team with Nicholas Bendtner at its point achieving anything.  And every time Giroud falls under a heavy challenge that what they’re facing.  Against Liverpool this weekend they’ll have their main players back and will probably keep their good run of league form going.  Over the course of the season though it’s no secret what will leave them short once again.

Dangerous times for Jol

For a club the size and position of Fulham the League Cup never assumes too much importance.  That’s the case right up until you get knocked out by a lower league team.  The last thing Martin Jol needed was a visit from a Manchester United team coming off two wins and still having to make up ground themselves.  With the likelihood of a defeat this weekend and tough games coming up he’ll be doing well to keep his job.  There’s also the newly occurring phenomenon of working for an owner that wasn’t responsible for hiring him.  Unfortunately it seems like something that isn’t going away anytime soon. 

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