When Oscar first arrived at Stamford Bridge, he appeared destined to reach the very top of the beautiful game. That may now seem an overly hyperbolic notion, but four years ago, Chelsea fans were struggling to decide who’d emerge as the club’s next flagship talent – the boy from Brazil or fellow summer 2012 signing Eden Hazard.
Fast forward to present day, and Oscar looks set to become one of the youngest high-profile players to turn his back on European football for a big-money pay out in the Chinese Super League, with Chelsea reportedly accepting a £60million bid from Shanghai SIPG.
And whilst Chelsea fans can’t have too many complaints about the club making a £41million profit on a player who has been handed just five Premier League starts this season, Oscar’s likely departure still leaves undertones of disappointment.
A story of unfulfilled potential, questions of what might have been and where it all went wrong continue to linger over what will be the largest transfer deal in Chelsea’s history. So, why did Oscar never become the superstar playmaker many expected?
The South American exploded onto the scene with a sublime strike against Juventus in the Champions League and that epitomised his first season in west London. Not a great goal scorer, but a scorer of great goals; demonstrating delicate feet, technical ability and real energy both with and without the ball. He, Hazard and Juan Mata, despite being united during one of the more disappointing seasons of Roman Abramovich’s reign, combined to create arguably the most eye-catching, fluid football the Chelsea club have ever produced.
But when Jose Mourinho returned in 2013, it was the latter attribute, work-rate, that appeared to become paramount, with his technical offerings increasingly falling by the wayside. Oscar found himself on the right wing because he worked harder than Juan Mata and then as the Blues’ first-choice No.10 because of the industriousness Mourinho wanted throughout his side – rather than any inventive flair the Brazilian possessed.
That’s evident in the statistics. Although Oscar served as Chelsea’s predominant No.10 when they won the Premier League in 2014/15, it was actually his second-worst Blues campaign in terms of chances created and successful dribbles – two hallmarks of the modern central attacking midfielder, and standards they are often judged upon, along with their output.
At the same time, his tackles-per-match and interceptions-per-match increased from the season before whilst his goal tally diminished, despite being moved to a more natural shooting position at the tip of midfield. That season was theoretically the most successful of Oscar’s career but he made just 26 starts out of a possible 38, highlighting how even with this added defensive protection, Mourinho still deemed the Brazilian expendable for certain games.
The consequence now is that no one is quite sure what Oscar truly is: he’s not a conventional wide man by any means, but he’s too slight to be a No.8 and doesn’t affect the game enough to be the resident No.10 at a club of Chelsea’s stature. He’s been caught in between styles for some time and that has seen his importance gradually diminish over the last few seasons. He’s become a victim of his own willingness to contribute defensively and gear his game towards his manager’s demands.
In many ways, it feels as if natural ability has been slowly but surely coached out of Oscar. His God-given attacking instincts compromised for discipline and structure; all the whimsical flair you’d expect of a Sao Paolo-born footballer continually forced into a frame of functionality.
With that in mind, it’s hard not to point the finger at Mourinho for Oscar’s pejorative transition. The 25-year-old appeared the perfect candidate to thrive under the Portuguese as a naturally hardworking No.10, but the now-Manchester United manager always seemed more interested in the industrious aspects of his game, skewing the balance between freedom to express and positional discipline a little too far towards the latter.
But there are other factors too: without a doubt, Oscar has played far too much football for a player of his age. For club and country, he’s already made 365 career appearances, registering more than 40 in five separate club campaigns along the way.
Most damagingly, the Copa America falling in the English off-season has prevented the midfielder from taking an extended rest for pretty much his entire career. The management of his game time must be questioned just as much as the manner in which he’s been coached. Midway through his third season at Stamford Bridge, Oscar appeared to be burning out. He managed just three Premier League goals from November onward – he’s never really recovered from there.
Oscar now leaves Stamford Bridge with a Premier League title, a Europa League title, a League Cup and two Chelsea Goal of the Season awards to his name. On the surface, that’s a fair representation of his abilities, but scratch a little deeper and you can’t help but feel he could have contributed more, could have dazzled more frequently, and could have become one of Chelsea’s all-time greats.
Instead, at the age of just 25, Oscar’s trading a spot on the Chelsea subs bench for more money than he’ll ever need and foreign top flight with the quality of League Two. Unfulfilled potential, indeed.