For a brief while, in the first half against Newcastle Utd last weekend, it looked like Jose Mourinho’s prediction that his side wouldn’t suffer a ‘bad moment’ this season, though they may occasionally have bad results, was about to be proven wrong. Chelsea were shocking the week before, somehow losing 5-3 away at Tottenham, but in the opening half against Newcastle they were considerably worse. There was no rhythm in midfield, no structure at the back, no bite going forwards – it’s a minor miracle that we didn’t concede the opening goal. And in the end, a single piece of quick thinking by Willian and Branislav Ivanovic, to score the opening goal from a short corner, was the sole highlight of the period.
Who knows just how important that single piece of quick thinking might turn out to be? We came out for the second half and looked a completely different side and dominated the game comfortably until the final whistle. Undoubtedly it was one of our best halves of the season and this afternoon, it was followed by our best away win since the 5-0 at Schalke, as we demolished Garry Monk’s Swansea side by the same score-line, to put any fears of a ‘bad moment’ well and truly away for the time being.
When Chelsea play well there are features to their performances that you invariably expect to see. Our best games almost always involve a fast start – intense pressure and an obvious intent to get at the opponent from minute one. There is always a lot of fluid interchanging of positions with the attacking players, as Willian and Eden Hazard in particular get themselves into a variety of positions to receive the ball quickly. Most notably of all however, when Chelsea are playing well, you can bet your life that it means Oscar is playing well too. It’s difficult to tell to what extent the Brazilian’s form improves the team and to what extent the whole team playing well helps Oscar to flourish, but there is a clear and undeniable link between the two.
His first goal, after just 50 seconds, I think sums up everything which is brilliant about his game when he’s in top form: the way he leads our pressing game from the front, with such intensity, forces players into the kind of mistake which Gylfi Sigurdsson made to give the ball away in the opening minute; his quick thinking to pounce on the mistake to create the opportunity for himself; and the technical quality in his finish, were all absolutely superb. Whether he’s staying high up to receive possessions and win the second balls from Costa when he don’t have possession, or whether he comes deep to help link the play when we’re building an attack, when Oscar’s in form he’s almost never out of the game. That our most dominant half of the season so far was also the Brazilian’s best performance to date, is no coincidence for sure.
Two other causes for optimism, with regards to the 23 year old, is that he’s putting in this kind of performance in the winter; after falling off the boil quite badly around New Year in his first two seasons, it’s promising to see him play so well in the kind of conditions we all know he’s particularly averse to. The second point comes via the Twitter account of football law and finance blogger Jake Cohen, who pointed out that Frank Lampard, in the season in which he turned 23, scored five goals and provided two assists for the club in the Premier League, whilst Oscar has already provided six goals and seven assists in the league.
As tactics blogger, Michael Cox pointed out also, in a hugely insightful piece for ESPN’s football page (link in the comments section) young midfielders very rarely begin to score goals regularly until they reach their mid-20s, ‘party for tactical reasons, partly because they haven’t yet learned to take responsibility and partly because they haven’t yet reached their peak’. He cites the four examples of the league’s best goal-scoring midfielders of recent years: Frank Lampard averaged five goals a year in his first five seasons, before averaging 13 for the next decade; likewise Steven Gerrard’s yearly average doubled after his first six years. After four seasons playing for Arsenal, Aaron Ramsey scored 10 goals in 23 games last year after managing just seven in 104 previously, whilst Yaya Toure scored 20 league goals last year, more than he scored in his first three seasons combined. The evidence seems clear. Even the very best midfielders don’t become great goal scorers until their mid-twenties. Which means the one area of Oscar’s game which is holding him back right now from becoming one of the game’s elite attacking players, could soon become a thing of the past.
Back to today’s game, looking back, games away to Swansea, ever since their promotion, have always been difficult affairs. Two hard earned 1-1 draws, a 2-0 aggregate defeat in the League Cup and a hugely laborious 1-0 win last season after they had a man sent off early, constituted our record at The Liberty Stadium before this afternoon. But despite the fact they’re obviously a good side, I’ve never understood why we’ve always struggled so much against them, given their relentless insistence on playing expansive, open football, on paper, they represent the kind of team we should enjoy playing the most.
Regardless of how good we were today though, Swansea certainly let themselves down on this occasion. They were atrocious. They couldn’t deal with the pressing from our midfield and managed to construct a grant total of zero decent passing moves in the first half. The first and third goals were the result of terrible individual mistakes. The manager has cause to be self-critical also. Before the game his decision to play Sigurdsson as a holding midfielder and to hand young loanee Nelson Oliveira his debut against Chelsea seemed strange decisions. In hindsight they were truly ridiculous calls to have made. Oh well.
Over now to Man City, who host Arsenal tomorrow afternoon. Expecting any kind of favour from the Gunners when it involves an away game to a top side is the very definition of laughable optimism. For some reason though, I’ve got a feeling tomorrow might be their day. City have Aguero and Kompany available for selection but neither can be especially match fit after respective lengthy lay-offs, whilst Yaya Toure is away at the ACON. Alexis Sanchez meanwhile is surely the league’s most in-form player right now. He was incredible in his side’s defeat of Stoke last weekend as he’s managed to bring a level of confidence to Arsenal they’ve been missing for some time. With Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla in good form as well, now is as likely time as any for Arsenal to do us a favour and deliver a blow to our only title rivals. Defeat would mean they’d arrive at Stamford Bridge in a fortnight five points behind, presenting us with the kind of opportunity to pull away which I can’t see us passing up.