Oscar: Too good to be a number 10

Clive Rose - Getty Images

A waste of his talents? Hardly. Oscar's that rare breed of midfielder who's both perfectly capable defensively and oozing class in the attack, and Chelsea will be best served in the long run by transitioning him to a slightly deeper role.

Just like Gianfranco Zola's legendary goal in Chelsea's 1997 FA Cup semifinal against Wimbledon, the touch seemed a little off at first. That's what made it so brilliant. By the time anyone realised what Oscar was actually up to, he had already taken his shot, a fizzing drive which left the perfectly-positioned, perfectly-reacting and perfectly-athletic Gianluigi Buffon with absolutely no chance.

It was a legitimately brilliant goal, one of the best anyone's seen at Stamford Bridge for a long, long time. But that turn and shot, mind-blowing though they were, shouldn't define Oscar's performance on the night.

Those playing close attention to the match would have noticed his nerves, at least at first. The 20-year-old's passing, so measured during the Olympics with Brazil, was frequently off, as was his decision making. Which is exactly what you would expect from a young man given his first taste of Champions League football after arriving from the Brasileiro.

But Oscar isn't your slightly-older cousin's number ten. Although his play is often compared to Kaka, Oscar's already a significantly more well-rounded footballer than his compatriot. He showed that against Juventus. Because despite his early failings on the ball (which he would, of course, rectify in stunning fashion), he was still Chelsea's most influential player before he grabbed that quickfire brace.

Central attacking midfielders aren't normally expected to contribute significantly to their team's defensive effort, which is one of the reasons that the Blues moved the defensively inept figure of Juan Mata into the middle last March. But against Juventus - and specifically against the legendary, if aging figure of Andrea Pirlo, the number ten will also be tasked with shutting down the Old Lady's play from deep.

The revival of Pirlo's reputation can be traced to three matches in Euro 2012. Neither Ireland nor England bothered to mark him, despite, in the latter's case, the presence of a perfectly capable foil in Wayne Rooney. Aided by Daniele de Rossi, Pirlo tore both sides apart.

Croatia showed that his influence could be at least partially curtailed by man-marking him directly (they used Luka Modric for the purpose), but that tactic failed when Joachim Loew attempted to apply it in the semifinal using Toni Kroos. Pirlo struggled for the first quarter of an hour before figuring out how to slip his man, and the Bayern Munich midfielder was never able to catch up to him again. Italy pulled off a 2-1 upset.

At one point in the summer, I was casting around for comparisons for Chelsea's newest purchase, a £25 million buy from Internacional. Cast as a number ten - indeed, wearing that shirt for the Selecao - he was never a perfect fit there. Sometimes he'd pop up in central defensive midfield, sometimes on the wing and he'd also work hard to win the ball back, a far cry from what's now standard from the central creative player in the modern 4-2-3-1.

The closest I came to young Oscar was Toni Kroos, a player miscast in the Bayern pivot but absolutely brilliant further forward, to the point of forcing World Cup 2010 darling Thomas Mueller to the bench. But where Kroos failed, Oscar succeeded, shutting Pirlo down from the word go.

Look at the touch numbers from Pirlo's season to date: 94, 136, 86, 63. The last sticks out like a sore thumb. Remember too that Oscar was forced off with an injury that he picked up 70 minutes in, at which point Juventus became far more dangerous (although it'd be difficult to pin the eventual equalizer from Fabio Quagliarella on the Brazilian's absence).

In his latest column for the BBC, Tim Vickery argues that Oscar is one of the most complete all-around midfielders that Brazil has produced in its recent history:

[Oscar] scored all three goals in the [World Youth Cup final] against Portugal. But at least as impressive was his all-round game - and as he has continued to progress over the subsequent year, it is his versatility which catches the eye as much as his ability to score goals...

Oscar can drop back and mark. Stronger than he looks, he can win the ball, orchestrate possession from deep, feed the strikers and get beyond them to shoot at goal. Bright and mobile, two-footed and talented, he is a midfielder in the full sense of the word - and it is precisely that which makes him so interesting.

And that's exactly right. Oscar's defensive effort needs honing, and he'll get less space in which to operate playing in the Premier League rather than our European campaign, but he's much more than a Juan Mata clone. For me, he's the long-term successor to Frank Lampard. Not the current, deep-lying player, but the midfield force that propelled Chelsea to trophy after trophy over the course of the past decade. No other player on the squad - or even on the radar - comes close to his combination of skills.

I've seen many argue that moving Oscar deeper would be a ‘waste' of his attacking talents. In many ways, that's correct. Placing Oscar in a midfield trio would slightly curtail his ability to get forward and create at will. But not giving him the ability to express all of his talents strikes me as a bigger waste - and a legitimately damaging one, at that.

Your best players should be getting the ball and adding value to it as often as possible. The central players touch the ball most often; they are therefore the most important. When Luka Modric played for Tottenham Hotspur, much was made of his relatively low marks in both goals and assists, but the fact of the matter is that he would simply do something slightly above average whenever he received the ball. Which was all the time.

Playing deeper, but with the license to push forward, seems like the ideal use of Oscar's skillset. I suspect that, given the opportunity, most managers would rather their number tens be true central midfielders anyway - they're simply more tactically versatile players that allow teams to answer far more questions than the standard, defensively-limited central attacking midfielder.

Oscar's not ready for a role in the pivot, nor is that where he's likely to be at his most successful. If Chelsea want to get the best out of him, his final position appears to be in a midfield three. If that happens, a baby-faced Brazilian might be the single most important purchase Chelsea have made since bringing in Ashley Cole six years ago.

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