The departure of the Interim One™ to Napoli has finally allowed some hope to seep back into Stamford Bridge. A season that delivered the minimum requirements albeit in rather surreal fashion can now be cast aside with a resurgent Chelsea looking to mount a serious title challenge next campaign. The usual caveats apply in this instance, but given the talent at our disposal and hopefully the right managerial appointment next year could be different.
While the foundations of such a young and talented squad are there for all to see, it is rather salient that we have lacked real technical quality in midfield. Certainly under Benitez the likes of Mikel, Ramires, Lampard and later Luiz failed to consistently exert authority when needed against a variety of opponents (dominated by City and outplayed by Benfica). While this may be attributed to tiredness in parts, there is a serious lack of technical ability in and out of possession.
Jonathan Wilson is at times unnecessarily convoluted in his tactical crusade. However, he did recently highlight the importance and growing trend of a creative deep-lying playmaker. While the likes of Andrea Pirlo have been acting like quarterbacks for what seems an eternity, it is the rise of the all action playmaking midfielder that has been most interesting. İlkay Gündoğan has been central to everything good about Borussia Dortmund this season. Blessed with a passing range few can call upon, he combines this with brilliant dribbling skills and link up play. Gündoğan is also disciplined enough to act as an effective screen for his back four when required and intelligently knows how to patrol space to minimise danger.
This trend may suggest the reason behind purported interest in Luka Modrić. While Chelsea gain a lot of energy by deploying Ramires in the pivot, there are too many times where he lacks the passing ability to really dominate teams when his boundless running is countered. John Obi Mikel is largely inconsistent and under Benitez regressed enormously from some decent performances under Di Matteo. Frank Lampard plays the role well, but will leave gaps defensively that above average sides pinpoint. David Luiz is without question a centre back. Having to play him in midfield because he remains the only person capable of playing a 20+ yard pass and making a tackle shows the criminal lack of depth at hand. Oriol Romeu remains an unknown quantity, hopefully he can provide a decent rotation option. The balance clearly is not quite there.
There is without question a need for someone to step in with the required quality to help dictate the flow of the game. Someone who can not only pick the correct pass out regularly, but do so quickly and precisely whether it is a five-yarder or a fifty-yarder. There is also the need for someone with exceptional touch, who can carry play between the lines and actually deliver an end product. Our midfield has a lot of grunt and application, but there is little finesse or consistent linking. In possession we fail to translate the ball quickly and as such often retain the ball in a stagnant manner.
It would be quite typical of Chelsea to go and spend a small fortune rectifying the issue. However, in this instance I would preach caution as the answer potentially already exists at the club. In Oscar Chelsea have arguably the perfect player to develop into a world class deep lying playmaker. Oscar’s tenacity, passing range and exquisite dribbling give him the foundation to drop slightly deeper and influence play to a greater degree.
Oscar’s season must largely be viewed as a success. He showed flashes of brilliance, while understandably appearing quiet at times. Let us not forget since signing for Chelsea Oscar has played an unbelievable number of games akin to almost two season’s worth of football. Moreover, Oscar is not a right winger contrary to popular belief. His decent debut season is therefore largely owed to the fact he is a phenomenally gifted footballer. His first touch in particular, evidenced most devastatingly against Andrea Pirlo, is as good as anything you are going to see.
The aspect of Oscar that is most intriguing in terms of moving him deeper is his dribbling skill. He lacks the blistering acceleration of Eden Hazard, but his close control allows him to similarly evade defenders. I believe it is this exceptional ball control that would make deploying him deeper a huge advantage. Oscar’s ability to glide past players would allow him to attack the opposition defence from deep. It increases his touches and therefore time on the ball and puts him in an area to cause more damage. I think of Dembélé at Spurs and how he floats through midfield – Oscar can easily cause similar if not greater problems.
The most pressing concern when it comes to our midfield play is the lack of consistent service from midfield to front four. Whether this is due to an inability to skilfully avoid an athletic/robust pressing game, lack of passing acumen or somewhere in between it has become a worryingly tangible feature. We are desperate for an intelligent upgrade here and shifting Oscar to an area of the pitch which increases his importance can only benefit those around him.
Too many players in our midfield are comfortable playing safe passes. This works if one player does it, but when both players adopt this approach the game is infuriatingly slow. Our passing game, particularly from deep, is something that Oscar will greatly benefit. He has frequently exhibited the ability to drop deep from his starting position to play exquisitely arrowed passes across field or to a striker. The overall intelligence, care and use of the ball when in possession is something that we sorely lack.
Oscar has the tenacity and work ethic to press the ball where required, but there will naturally be a learning curve if he is asked to operate from a deeper position on a regular basis. Gündoğan in particular benefits from having an exceedingly high work rate in midfield. He presses well, hassles and harries the opposition into mistakes and then capitalises on those errors quickly. The statistical comparison works favourably in Oscar’s favour. Considering his role the fact he makes 2.5 tackles a game and Gündoğan makes 2.3 is quite unusual (domestic stats only). Eden Hazard, by comparison, makes 0.8 tackles per game. Debating their true roles would take time, but merely illustrating the defensive appetite that Oscar has.
The reality presenting Oscar is that his favoured role is presently occupied by the best classic number ten in world football. While he certainly contributes from a wider role, he clearly is at his best deployed more centrally. Whether it his incisive passing or penetrative dribbling, Oscar needs to be on the ball more and this solves that issue. There remains an element of gym work that needs to be done to prepare him for a more physical role, but the benefits of a combative yet brilliantly intelligent and skilful playmaker far outweigh any negatives. The potential to develop what could prove to be an absolutely beast of a deep lying playmaker is clear. I just wonder if someone at the club has seen this as well.