Many Chelsea fans were inconsolable when Juan Mata was sold to Manchester United a year ago. The departure of their two-time player of the year was unexpected and incomprehensible. How could Jose Mourinho contemplate releasing one of the finest midfield maestros in the Premiership to one of Chelsea’s fiercest rivals?
Well, the answer to that was embodied in the tall, skinny frame of Brazilian starlet Oscar. An unconventional playmaker, Oscar is not a midfielder that grabs the headlines. Every now and then he will curl in a free kick with outstanding precision or deftly chip a ball over the defence with an unmatchable accuracy. But most of the time he just runs. Oscar runs and runs and runs. If Mourinho asked him to run off a cliff for the good of the team he would probably do so. No other player in Brazil’s starting eleven could have scored the stoppage time goal he converted in their brutally humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in the World Cup.
While David Luis and Marcelo ambled around the pitch in embarrassment, too afraid to touch the ball, Oscar chased after it in defiance. He pursued an aimless long ball and slotted it in past Manuel Neuer. The goal didn’t grab any headlines. But did restore a tiny shred of pride in some Brazilians who took a break from heckling to applaud their young star’s tirelessness.
That consolatory goal was only Oscar’s second of the tournament. And one thing is for certain, if the 23-year-old is to become a great he must improve his goal scoring. But what Oscar does not need to improve on is his work-rate.
The Castrol index measures a player’s passing, tackling and movement to assess whether they have positive or negative impact on the team’s ability to score or concede a goal. Oscar’s contributions rank him the second best midfielder at the 2014 World Cup. He made more tackles than anyone else at the tournament – and he needed to with that defence behind him.
But since returning to club football with Chelsea the young Brazilian has returned to winning ways. He starred against Newcastle at Stamford Bridge when he scored and played an exquisite back-heel flick to set up Diego Costa’s goal. And while he is often outshone by the attacking flair of Hazard and Fabregas, his integrity to the Chelsea team remains unquestioned.
Mourinho may rest Oscar when his side plays away at struggling teams who are battling in the relegation dogfight but he will always return for the big games.
At 23 Oscar still has a long way to go and is certainly not the complete player. What he is is an irreplaceable cog in the Jose Mourinho machine.
Juan Mata only played 34 minutes of Spain’s World Cup campaign and earned a rating of just 5.44 – that’s 4.13 less than Oscar. When Mourinho sacrificed Mata for the young Brazilian he was investing in a new age of playmakers.
These are players who set up attacks, not just through creative skill, but through grit, determination and graft. Oscar is thriving in a midfield crammed full of attacking talent and his tireless performances are set to be rewarded as Chelsea chase trophies on all four fronts.