By Rupert Fryer
When Jose Mourinho picked his side to take on Atletico Madrid in their Champions League semi-final first-leg last week, there was one notable absence as Brazil international Oscar was left on the bench.
In some quarters the decision led to the questioning of Oscar’s overall impact since arriving in London from Internacional in 2012 for a fee of almost €25 million.
"I want to build with Oscar as my No.10,” Mourinho said in September. “If somebody tells me that Oscar has not been Chelsea's best player since the beginning of the season, I'd have to disagree.”
Come his side’s biggest game of the campaign so far, however, Oscar was nowhere to be seen, and there have since been concerns that the 22-year-old has struggled to live up to his reputation in his second season in European football.
But his omission was likely little more than a calculated, tactical decision from Mourinho. Lining up in a 4-1-4-1, with what was essentially a triple-pivot in the middle of a midfield consisting of David Luiz, Frank Lampard and Jon Obi Mikel, Chelsea’s gameplan was to coax their hosts into taking the initiative after Atletico captain Gabi had joked that “If Chelsea give us the ball, we'll instantly give it back to them.”
With Atleti happy to concede possession and hit their opponents on the counter, there was little need for Chelsea to implement a high-pressing approach for which Oscar is ideal.
|OSCAR'S CHELSEA BLUES
| OSCAR'S STATS UP TO JANUARY 31
| OSCAR'S STATS SINCE FEBRUARY 1
Rather, the 22-year-old is perhaps the archetypal, contemporary No.10. Athletic, dynamic, and stronger than his fragile frame may suggest, for all his technical gifts former Brazil coach Mano Menezes introduced the midfielder as an international regular after identifying perhaps his biggest attribute of all: defending from the front. Those who have watched the Brazilian from his initial introduction at Internacional will likely agree that Oscar remains underappreciated by English football fans.
He was the catalyst for a post-Dunga Brazil that sought to reclaim possession high up the pitch and has perhaps been the Selecao’s most important player over the last 18 months. Pressing is contagious. When one goes, it’s vital that others follow. He sets the tone for Brazil's modern approach – often the first to chase the opposition, it's his pressure that time and again leads to his team recovering possession deep in enemy teritory.
While Oscar may not have consistently proved a match-winner for Mourinho, he remains Chelsea’s third-highest goalscorer this season with nine goals in 32 starts. And averaging two tackles per game in the Premier League, he reclaims possession for his side more frequently than David Luiz, Branislav Ivanovic, John Obi Mikel, Gary Cahill, John Terry and a completely reborn Willian.
Oscar was left out of the matchday squad for Chelsea’s victory over Liverpool on Sunday, ostensibly in order to be fresh for the return leg against Atletico. With Diego Simeone’s side likely to once again try and sit back at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday evening, the Brazilian could return to the side and provide a balance offered by few with his level of technical ability.
But even if he is once again left on the sidelines, if he has indeed lost the confidence of his club coach, Oscar can rest assured that any lack of playing time for his club will have little-to-no impact on his starring role at this year’s World Cup.
Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari and technical director Carlos Alberto Parreira have – both publically and privately – told their key figures that a lack of playing time at for their clubs will have little influence on who leads Brazil’s quest for a sixth world title in June. Both former World Cup winners believe less club minutes will in fact be a blessing for the Selecao, reducing the chances of valuable first-team members arriving at the tournament suffering from fatigue.
Neymar’s decision to don the prestigious No.10 at football’s showpiece event this summer may have illustrated the Barcelona forward’s status as the undisputed star of Felipao's side, but few are considered more vital than Oscar. In recent friendly matches he has competently displayed the ability and tactical discipline to interchange with Neymar, to his left, and Hulk – or Willian – to the right – something Brazil have worked on extensively during their attacking drills in recent training sessions.
“I'm often interchanging with Neymar or Oscar and that really helps,” a revitalised Hulk told Gillette Brasil Global Tour last month. “We really enjoy that.”
And it’s that tactical and stylistic versatility that means there’s much more to come from Oscar. If not in the Champions League, then certainly at the World Cup.