In only 7 games, Chelsea’s decision to bring in Cesc Fabregas has been vindicated emphatically. The attacking connection that Fabregas has instantly made with Diego Costa had suddenly turned scoring goals into a doddle for Mourinho’s team, with Fabregas laying on 4 of Costa’s 7 strikes this season. After what seemed like an eternity of Fernando Torres labouring painfully up front, this Spanish (albeit half naturalised) connection is making life breezy and beautiful for Mourinho. Fabregas must also be feeling a certain sense of relief in his new direct role; after 3 seasons of sideways-centric midfield obligations at Barcelona, having a target man of Costa’s pedigree, and the license to pass directly, ought to feel exhilarating. Chelsea’s second goal against Arsenal, again made by Fabregas and again dispatched by Costa, is a perfect example of the midfielder shining in this fairly deep-lying, but incisive, role.
On paper, Fabregas was brought in to replace the outgoing Frank Lampard, but on the pitch he provides a very different set of skills than the Englishman did. Lampard, more than anything else, was a phenomenal scorer, a midfielder with a preternatural sense for when to get forward, and where exactly to be to best receive a final pass. His passing was rarely anything more than crisp and snappy, keeping the ball, rarely hitting ambitious passes of any significant distance or difficulty. Lampard not having the ability or predilection to hit Scholes or Gerrard type longer passes over the top isn’t a slight against the Chelsea record goalscorer, it just simply wasn’t his style. But consequently, when he played for Chelsea last season, usually alongside the far more defensive Matic, Ramires or Mikel, the team were not benefiting from much deep-lying creativity from the deeper central midfield. They profited from and were grateful for Lampard’s progressive jettisons into the penalty area, but the attackers were rarely the recipients of direct passes, like the one that Costa scored from in the Arsenal game, from Lampard. And, obviously, even fewer balls of that nature came from Mikel, Matic or Ramires.
This was entirely expected and largely accounted for last season by the sumptuous trio behind the striker, most effectively made up of Oscar, Hazard and Willian. With 48, 92 and 64 chances created respectively by each, they were largely responsible for Chelsea’s zapping sharpness in attack. Each had many more key passes than Lampard and, though Lampard had 1 more assist than both Willian and Oscar last season, that may have been down to the lack of quality in the striker’s spot. Of these three stiletto attackers, Hazard and Willian are more inside-forward types, very much looking to make runs behind the defence or beat defenders with pace or skill on the edge of or, more ideally, inside the penalty area. Oscar isn’t like the other two in this regard, he is a more reserved, cerebral soul, often venturing deep, and is less inclined to hang about in highly advanced positions. His highlights from last season (below) largely show this: he’s often found collecting the ball in his own half, and more often than not is flitting ominously around that red-zone just outside the box looking to thread a ball through, rather than running into the box to receive a pass.
In the context of the team structure last season, Oscar was the primary link between the defensive section of the midfield and the attack. Lampard only played a full 90 minutes 13 times last season, so Oscar had to get comfortable performing in the role. The whole point of this long winded introduction is to establish a firm foundation from which to launch this question: what does Fabregas’s injection of true and direct creativity in the deeper midfield mean for Oscar? Does Fabregas’s quality, while evidently good for the team, make Oscar’s role in the side somewhat redundant?
Of course when Chelsea play different teams, Fabregas’s role, the subsequent structure and their effects on Oscar will change accordingly. Against a team of far lesser quality and confidence, that sits deep and looks to stifle, Chelsea will benefit greatly from having both Fabregas and Oscar on the pitch to unlock an obdurate defensive horde. Two players capable of playing in Costa, Willian, Shurrle or Hazard will be an advantage here. But when playing against opposition of a higher calibre, like Arsenal, and if Mourinho decides, like he did against Arsenal, to shut the game down by playing deeply, will Fabregas’s ability to ping dangerous, accurate balls from deep areas not be preferred over Oscar’s quasi-attacker modus operandi? Let’s not forget, Fabregas can also shuffle forward and be as dangerous as the Brazilian in the hole. Already this season, as has been said, Fabregas has been incredibly effective and has 7 assists. Oscar has 1 assist so far, and has been less accurate in his passing than Fabregas despite his average pass distance being shorter. Fabregas has created 22 chances so far this season, Oscar has created 7, despite the Brazilian largely playing further up the pitch. Oscar has played two less games, but their per 90 minutes comparison also doesn’t bode well for Oscar at all.
If you look at Fabregas’s individual highlights against Arsenal, it was clear he was told to operate deeply and, one assumes, to look for the ball like the one that created the second goal. Against Everton, a game that Oscar did not start in, Fabregas was noticeably more active further forward, doing everything that Oscar would be doing, but also being entirely at home in the deeper parts of the pitch.
The season is still very young, and team dynamics are no doubt still being worked out by the manager. And, to be honest, this is a nice problem to have, in a way. Essentially, it’s an issue of player redundancy in the final third. These statistics don’t necessarily mean anything conclusive, but the intuitive feeling is that Oscar is at risk of being bypassed, and is thus a passenger, when Fabregas is excelling. Would Chelsea be better served playing another inside-forward type player like Shurrle or Salah rather than Oscar, now that Fabregas is here? Perhaps. A manager of Mourinho’s pedigree can surely find a way to fit them both in, should he wish to, and in a way where they don’t step on each other’s toes. Regardless, the playmaking quality that Fabregas has introduced into the deep midfield is a frightening new arrow in Chelsea’s quiver. And even with the current structural clash, it’s flying with deadly precision and splitting the bullseye already.