Joe Tweeds takes a look at the burgeoning core of Brazilian stars at the heart of José Mourinho’s Chelsea Mk. II.
Brazilian football elicits connotations like very few sporting nations. The iconic yellow shirt, samba style and legendary players form a cocktail of potent proportions. They are a side associated with flair, skill and creativity; a team who were superb before the invention of passing statistics. Chelsea have dabbled somewhat with Brazilians in the past. From Emerson Thome, Alex and cult hero Juliano Belletti to the legend of Mineiro. Now we have a new breed of Brazilian at the club – do they represent the core of Chelsea’s future?
It is interesting to note that Chelsea’s initial experience of Brazilian footballers has come in the form of defensively minded players. Emerson Thome was a serviceable centre-back but swiftly departed the club. If you take Alex’s ability to strike a free-kick away from him you might have mistaken him for a very typical English defender. Juliano Belletti immediately got the club and his role within the squad. He was the consummate professional and ultimate utility player with a penchant for scoring exquisite goals. Mineiro was something of a mystery and I am still not sure he entirely existed.
These were not typical Brazilians™.
From these functional players the change in direction for Chelsea’s current Brazilian influence is quite stark. Lucas Piazon, currently doing exceptionally well on loan in Holland, was a departure from our previous trend. While he did not make the grade in some fleeting appearances, Chelsea’s Brazilian revolution would soon gather pace and could ultimately spell a very bright future for the club. In Oscar, Willian, Ramires and David Luiz Chelsea possess a core of exceptional talent who align the hardworking qualities we associate with our original foray with traditional Brazilian characteristics.
David Luiz is a polarising player at Chelsea. While many will argue about his natural position, I cannot say I have heard anyone suggest he is anything but a ridiculously gifted footballer. When Chelsea find the right level of creativity and grit in midfield, hopefully this summer, Luiz should settle down into a world class role as a ball playing centre-back. The salient difference in his style of play for Brazil and Chelsea should narrow. For Brazil he takes less risks and allows those ahead of the ball to dictate the tempo. At Chelsea he takes far too much responsibility to speed up play and instigate a tempo that it does lead to occasional mistakes. Any Luiz misplaced pass or error usually comes in a game that we are being frustrated – for Brazil this rarely happens. Sorting the midfield malaise out will calm Luiz down and allow him to become Mourinho’s first choice centre-back.
What many seem to miss in his current positional debate is the nuances of deploying him in midfield. My opinion is that Luiz should not be played as an exclusive holding midfielder. He has a tendency to attack the ball and at times leaves a chasm of space behind him as he hunts down possession. However, until we resolve our issue in midfield I would certainly suggest that Luiz is of greater use to the team in an advanced role. He needs to be given the task of acting as the shuttler/destroyer in a three man midfield, with someone sitting behind him and someone ahead. Alternatively, he should be paired with Obi Mikel or Ramires but in both cases he should be the forward thinking player.
Luiz can exert a huge amount of pressure in midfield on opposition players. He is a tank that can press the ball, crash into challenges but more importantly he will always look to play forward quickly. Yes, his passing accuracy will not be the greatest, but against Liverpool where he took chances on long passes we looked phenomenal. The opposition will play more cautiously knowing that Luiz will invariably look for the attacking pass. A Liverpool midfield who were completely on top of City for large patches of their match looked second best mainly due to Luiz’s impressive presence. He is the centre-back of the future, but currently his energy and ability in midfield will help the team far more than his quality in defence.
Moving onto Ramires it is easy to see why Mourinho rates him so highly. Ramires’ capacity to run solidly for ninety-minutes is unparalleled. He brings a huge amount of athletic quality to Chelsea’s midfield and is capable of magnificent pieces of play. There are times, however, during a game where his inconsistent passing ability and end product are disappointing (when you know what he can produce). If you remove the creative burden from Ramires and allow him to destroy he becomes a pitbull in the middle of the park who can simply overrun and overload the opposition midfield.
Ramires’ deployment by Mourinho is a great indication of the style of play we wish to implement. A high pressing game with the ability to win possession and spring lightning attacks requires players of Ramires’ particular skillset. The role, often described as a shuttler, allows Ramires to both quickly press the ball when we lose possession but more importantly provide significant cover to any wide player ahead of him. Buying that Pogba or Vidal level of player to operate in our midfield this summer will greatly elevate both Ramires and our capacity as a whole to play in this new Mourinho style.
I often speak of balance when picking a team – essentially the sum of the parts is greater than any individual – and despite Ramires on occasions looking shaky in possession, his contribution goes well beyond this. You only need to look at his all-round game against Southampton to see precisely what his level of energy and aggression can bring when he plays well.
Willian’s arrival, and the fee surrounding the player, raised a lot of eyebrows amongst Chelsea fans in the summer. In a position that we were more or less covered choosing to spend around £25.5m-£32m on a winger seemed odd. We were in desperate need of a high quality central midfielder and striker but still spent significantly elsewhere. While such a transfer fee would place the recipient under exorbitant pressure to perform (Erik Lamela, anyone?) Willian has quietly gone about his business adjusting to the Premier League and establishing himself within the side. Displacing Mata, Schürrle and De Bruyne was a difficult task, but who would currently argue that he is not a starting calibre player on form?
Willian is a key component in Mourinho’s system that has worked successfully in recent outings. While Oscar takes many of the plaudits it is Willian’s selflessness on the right flank that has enabled things to fall into place. Petr Čech recently said that “he (Willian) keeps working for the team, making the difference, scoring goals, defending. I thought I’d never see anyone running more than Ramires, but he’s really there.” That, in a nutshell, is exactly what has made the past two games against Southampton and Liverpool arguably our best back-to-back performances of the season.
There is an absolutely monstrous work ethic within Willian that enables him to act as both a defensive and offensive weapon. He wins a plethora of ball high up the pitch and more importantly has the quality to turn that into dangerous opportunities. Similarly his capacity to press both defenders and midfielders with unerring tenacity forces mistakes, inaccurate passes and long balls. Liverpool’s typically calm demeanour amongst their back four was totally interrupted by Willian’s incessant ability to harass and chase.
Willian, more than any other player, provides the perfect balance to the team. When paired with Hazard there is little surprise to see the Belgian in devastating form. He offers a direct attacking outlet, serious pace on the counter, wonderfully balanced dribbling skills and makes good choices when in possession. Add that quality to his defensive work rate and couple that with Ramires playing behind him our right flank now resembles an opposition nightmare: a pacy, hard-working and efficient force in both directions.
What we need from Willian going forward is more goals and a continual development of his game in the final third. He undoubtedly has great finishing ability – his two goals this season are testament to that – but positioning himself in proper shooting angles needs to flow from all the great work he does. Eden Hazard is drastically improving his ability to make shots from better angles. Willian, likewise, has all the qualities to become not only an attacking workhorse but a dangerous finisher as well. Once that is added to his game then Chelsea will truly possess an elite pair of wide attacking midfielders.
Finally we come to Oscar, arguably my current favourite Chelsea player. If Willian provides the necessary balance on the right flank then Oscar is the quarterback of this Chelsea midfield. Every team who wishes to press needs a coordinator, either someone to trigger the closing down or to direct things. This is precisely where Oscar has grown over the past few weeks after a slight downturn in form. He, like Hazard, seemingly benefits from having Willian playing alongside him. More importantly, he has begun to severely disrupt our opponents pattern of play.
Oscar is simply a beautiful football player. He is blessed with otherworldly balance, close control and quality in possession that few in world football can match. Nevertheless, there is a surprising steel to Oscar’s play that elevates him from the realms of a classic number ten. Oscar flies into challenges, crashes into opponents and wins back possession like a midfield enforcer. While not a particularly good looking challenge his tackle on Lucas was the embodiment of his approach. A no nonsense number ten? Sounds odd even typing it.
His goalscoring rate has improved from a goal every 573 minutes to a goal every 200 minutes in the League this season. There is a marked development in his influence across all areas of play, not simply in his improvement in front of goal. Oscar is central to everything that Chelsea look to achieve. His combination of aggression and superlative ability is not easily replicated by any player in world football. There is such a high ceiling for Oscar and his improvement under Mourinho has been that great that he may well become one of the best we will ever see at Chelsea.
José Mourinho is finally showing his hand regarding which direction he wants his team to head. Elements of power and aggression in midfield, a pressing game resulting in high turnovers and a brutal cutting edge are all very much in Chelsea’s future. The performances over the past few weeks have been fantastic and bode well for a strong end to the season. It is up to the club to surround this Brazilian core and enrich it in the summer with quality individuals. While we may well end up mounting a serious assault on the Premier League over 2014, Mourinho’s comments about challenging for the title in his second season seem more telling by the day. You can bet quite strongly that Chelsea’s boys from Brazil will be crucial if that is a reality.