By Jack Gaughan
Juan Mata will have enjoyed his bottle of man-of-the-match champagne on the bus back to Cobham on Wednesday night, but it was Oscar who really caught the eye with a performance to further indicate that he is set to become a big success in English football.
Chelsea came from a goal down to sweep past Championship side Leeds United 5-1 and booked their place in the semi-finals of the Capital One Cup, where they will face Swansea City over two legs in January.
The Blues were inspired by the quick thinking of Mata in the final third, but were indebted to a complete midfield masterclass from a 21-year-old who seemingly has near-endless amounts of potential.
When asked to play in a deeper role than he has previously been used to this season, you looked at the teamsheet and winced slightly. Up against the agricultural Michael Brown and Michael Tongue, Oscar could have had himself a daunting and intimidating evening. Surely the slight Brazilian, dazzling on the ball but with a meagre frame, will be eaten alive, swarmed all over. Given a proper ‘Welcome to England’.
That wasn’t to be the case. Oscar adapted excellently, seamlessly, and with the maturity of a player beyond his tender years and with a wealth of experience. His upper body strength shields possession from players, like Brown, who are hungry to snap away and aggressively bustle in an attempt to win the ball back. It had already been noted earlier in the campaign that he is surprisingly strong for someone so small. To show that in the final third is one thing, but to do it in a key battle ground – around the halfway line – where any deficiency is pounced upon is very impressive indeed.
The gritty attributes he seems to have in his locker suggest that Oscar is ready to become the whole package for Chelsea and not just a luxury delicacy who is pleasing on the eye when the going is good. Perhaps you should expect that when parting with upwards of £20 million, but it does come as a minor revelation in the modern game.
Nevertheless, and even though he was up against players far behind his level of ability, the player allowed his skilfulness to boss proceedings. He presents a youthful energy in possession, skipping past or through markers to navigate space for those ahead of him and has a tremendous eye for a pass. Unlike when fellow countryman David Luiz ventures forward, Oscar does not feel the need to consistently try a killer ball or suffer for being too cute. If a square pass is on, he will make it and move into a position to impact the match higher up the pitch. Sounds simple, but the Blues lack that when John Obi Mikel plays in a similar role. That is understandable, given Mikel is a quintessential holding midfielder.
Oscar is different. He combines both the vision on the ball, the execution in a range of passing, the positional awareness and the physical steel to make the spot his own.
The youngster's move deeper, and consistency in performance there, will not come overnight. Mikel will still be utilised in the role for much of this season, but it seems clear that Rafa Benitez is searching for players with an all-encompassing game to occupy that space in the years to come. Whether he will be there to see that plan bear fruit is unlikely, but the sentiment behind it is laudable. Luiz, for example, was superb as such during the Club World Championship.
But for now, Oscar can be pleased with his efforts in a position relatively alien to him. If he is allowed to blossom from a deeper start, this Bentiez gamble could prove to be a masterstroke in the coming years.Follow Jack Gaughan on