Chelsea’s season can be quite neatly divided in two: pre-Sunderland defeat when the team were attempting to play with the ball and Mourinho appeared unhappy and post-Sunderland defeat when Chelsea looked to win without the ball and Mourinho marginally less unhappy.
The manager’s return to Chelsea initially looked like an uncomfortable engagement. Mourinho’s three years in Spain appeared to have taken their toll and the brief to add flair to his pragmatism was proving to be a source of turmoil for the soul of Mourinho and the defence of Chelsea. The goals poured in, the manager lamented. Work rate was stressed and Mata marginalised. And still Mourinho’s Chelsea remained uncharacteristically pregnable at the back.
Defeat to Sunderland changed all this. Chelsea had lost again and Mourinho become bored with trying to be anyone but Mourinho. It was only a half attempt anyway. For all the talk of a change in philosophy, in dropping Mata and Luiz from the team, the manager had taken out the two players best fitted to a more expansive style of play.
“Football is about getting results and it’s quite frustrating as we may have to take a step back in order to be more consistent at the back,” explained Mourinho after defeat at the Stadium of Light.
“It’s something I don’t want to do, to play more counterattacking, but I’m giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0 I think I can as I think it is one of the easiest things in football. It is not so difficult, as you don’t give players the chance to express themselves”.
But this change has come at a cost. While the team have only conceded eight goals in their 20 Premier League games since, failures to score against Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and West Ham are unforgivable for a team challenging for the title. The single goal scored against Sunderland wasn’t enough either. The change in concentration to what the team do without the ball has taken some of the edge of what they do with it.
The player to suffer most from this switch in emphasis is unsurprisingly the sole playmaker in team. Oscar’s first-half of the season form was enough to justify the exclusion and ultimate sale of Juan Mata, but his performances in the second-half have seen him fall behind Willian and Andre Schurrle in the pecking order.
There are obvious reasons why Oscar would suffer more than most. The Brazilian is a natural No. 10, the role reserved for the creator. But creation has taken a backseat at Stamford Bridge since Christmas. Destruction is the name of the game.
So heavy has the emphasis been on what the Chelsea players now have to do without the ball that their positive contribution is always going to suffer relatively. If forward players are thinking so much about positional play and closing down opponents, they can’t be as focused on attacking contribution. Apart from an issue of emphasis, they simply don’t have the same energy to give to the proactive side of the game.
And energy may be the crux of the problem for Oscar. The playmaker played over 60 games for Chelsea last season and then went to the Confederations Cup with Brazil. He’s already made over 40 appearances for Chelsea this term and knows a home World Cup lies on the horizon.
Such demands are both physically and mentally draining. And it’s quite likely that the latter is proving most detrimental for the Brazilian. Moments of brilliance may look easy but don’t come easy. In football, it’s harder to create than destroy, and it’s certainly much harder when you’ve spent 90 minutes chasing the ball back and forth across the opposition back line.
This is not to absolve Oscar, or players of his ilk, from work. There is no reason to believe that attacking players are not capable of contributing both defensively and offensively. It’s just that if you ask such players to do so, you should expect them to be as effective going the other direction.
Given the amount of games that Oscar played last season and the greater defensive contribution that Mourinho has asked of his team, it’s not surprising that the Brazilian’s form has dropped off as the season has wore on. Perhaps the player would be able to contribute as much to attacking play if this was his sole remit, but the dual responsibilities of going forward and back appear to be too much for Oscar in his current condition.