There was many an eyebrow raised at Chelsea’s summer spending. It wasn’t the amount that the shelled out. We’re all perfectly used to that these days. No, it was the type of player that the then-manager Roberto Di Matteo brought to the club.
Chelsea paid £32 million for Eden Hazard, £25 million for Oscar, £9 million for Victor Moses and £6.5 million for Marko Marin, amongst others. The reason that observers were surprised is that the four players mentioned would be competing for just three positions, alongside the incumbent Juan Mata, who had just enjoyed an excellent first season for Chelsea.
Having five top-class players for three positions might not seem like a big problem for a top club like Chelsea, who would be expected to challenge on all fronts, yet when you analysed the players in question, it soon became clear that Chelsea’s team selection would not be straightforward.
Because of the five attacking midfielders, only Victor Moses could be classed as an out-and-out winger. The others could all play on the flanks, but all preferred to play in the centre. Which begged the question—why had Chelsea signed four versions of the same player?
At first glance, though, it looked like the quality of the players in question was such that it really didn’t matter that they all wanted to play centrally. Chelsea began the season with Mata, Oscar and Hazard in the three attacking midfield positions and played some great football, as they swept aside each and every opponent.
Slowly though, the Premier League’s clubs cottoned on how to get at Chelsea. No matter who Di Matteo employed in the wide positions, they all preferred to play in the middle and naturally tended to come inside to occupy those positions.
This left huge swathes of space on the flanks from which Chelsea could be counter-attacked. Before long Chelsea’s wins were becoming losses and Di Matteo found himself sacked.
His replacement, Rafa Benitez, is nothing if not pragmatic. He is a manager who believes that attacking play should be built upon a strong defensive base and knows that the best teams defend from the front. Many managers would have employed a more skillful attacker than Dirk Kuyt if they had the chance to manage Liverpool, but Benitez valued the hard work that the Dutchman put in.
So it was always unlikely that Benitez would employ three playmakers and give them as much freedom as Di Matteo afforded his star signings. Since taking over as Chelsea boss, Benitez has given more games to Victor Moses, employing him as a traditional wide man and has tended to only play two of his attacking midfielders.
It has been the Brazilian, Oscar, who has more often than not found himself as the odd man out. Oscar started in the first two games of the Benitez reign, but in total has only made the starting 11 in seven of the 15 games since the Spaniard took charge.
Those starts have included the recent disappointments of the home defeats to QPR and Chelsea. Benitez was recently quoted in the Daily Mail, where he denied that there has been a rift between them and described the player in glowing terms, although he did concede that Oscar was not happy at his lack of starts.
You would hope that Oscar is given the chance to show his worth. Mata might be more established and Hazard more expensive, but Oscar has produced some of Chelsea’s finest moments this season. Less flashy than Hazard, nevertheless Oscar is just as effective, as he ghosts into space with a serene calmness.
It is clear that Chelsea have too many players of the same ilk. Perhaps, then, it should be Marko Marin who is sacrificed. Rotating three players for two positions should see them all get enough football to remain satisfied.
There's also the fact that Oscar began his career in Brazil playing in a deeper midfield role. He might be too slight at the moment to perform in this position in the rough and tumble of the Premier League, but as he fills out it could be an option.
Besides, Chelsea spent a lot of time trying to recruit the diminutive Luka Modric to fill such a gap and he and players like David Silva have proved that’s it’s not always necessary to have muscle in central midfield.
With Benitez looking like a temporary option for Chelsea, ultimately we may have to wait until they recruit their next, permanent manager before Oscar is given a more defined role. We can only hope that whoever that is, appreciates the talents of a player who has the potential to be one of the Premier League’s brightest lights.