It was Mikel John Obi who had thrown down the gauntlet earlier in the week. Posting a video of Oscar’s sumptuous curling effort against Queens Park Rangers from October 2014, he asked when it would be before we saw another wonder goal from his team-mate.
“Time for another one of these soon,” he tweeted, teasing the Brazilian who was celebrating his 25th birthday.
In some ways, as perfect as that goal from Oscar was, it sums up the frustration Chelsea fans feel with him. Bending the ball around Robert Green, the Brazil international rendered the goalkeeper helpless. There was no way he would be getting a finger to it, no matter how far he stretched his arm out in sheer desperation.
It was eye-of-the-needle stuff. Oscar had spotted the one section of goal where he could beat Green and with an audacious first-time flick of his boot, he pulled it off. The ball curled into the far corner and those inside Stamford Bridge were delirious.
Happy birthday my friend @oscar8 ? Time for another one of these soon ?️ ⚽️ #CFC ??? https://t.co/k5YGBTUAOt
— Mikel John Obi (@mikel_john_obi) September 9, 2016
That goal is probably Oscar’s best individual moment in a Chelsea shirt. Memories of his debut against Juventus run it close, yet everything about the goal was quality. The vision, the technique, the audacity to actually succeed—it all spoke of a player who is world class, or at least should be regarded as such.
In that moment, we saw what Jose Mourinho had when he sold off Juan Mata in the name of promoting Oscar ahead of him. The goal was everything the South American was expected to be; it was everything the then-23-year-old could be.
But there’s a reason why Mikel sent that tweet. Outside of dressing room banter, there’s a message we can take from it—we simply haven’t seen it enough. Only fleetingly has Oscar hit those heights for Chelsea.
Now under Antonio Conte, we seem to be going through the same cycle we’ve seen before. The summer arrives and we question Oscar’s future only for a good pre-season and early form in the new term to make us question our judgement.
Had it not been for an excellent save from Lukasz Fabianski on Sunday, we would have been here describing another Oscar wonder goal, too.
Steve Bardens/Getty Images
As the ball spilled free to him on the edge of the Swansea City box, Oscar didn‘t think about his next motion. It was pure instinct as he placed the ball toward the top corner, wrapping his foot around it to get the whip needed in order to draw Chelsea level at 2-2. The net was ready to bulge, and the Chelsea fans behind the goal were out of their seats in anticipation. Then Fabianski denied him with an equally impressive finger-tip save.
Goal or not, Oscar was at the races in Wales; he has been since the season started. From his goalscoring form in pre-season—the Brazilian found the back of the net three times—he’s been re-establishing his reputation under Conte.
And with the Italian’s influence, it feels likes this new version of Oscar is here to stay. He’s looking more polished, more in tune with what’s expected of him. Because he’s playing alongside Nemanja Matic in the middle, he has a team-mate to share the workload.
That means Oscar isn’t chasing as many balls; he’s pressing with more intelligence as Matic is there alongside him, backing him up and covering the same ground. And when the ball is free in the middle, it’s the Brazilian invariably picking it up and—attempting at least—to do the damage. Put simply, he’s back to being involved in what Chelsea produce.
Ben Hoskins/Getty Images
It’s because of that he was in the right position for that effort on Fabianski‘s goal. It wasn’t luck, but far more deliberate that he was in the area he was criticised for vacating so often before.
Mourinho had played Oscar as a No. 10, and it worked intermittently. He couldn’t find consistency, struggling to keep up with what’s expected of a player in that position. It’s a numbers game; we need to see assists, a higher number of goals and an effect on the attacking tempo of the team’s play.
Oscar doesn’t represent any of that; he wears that No. 8 at Stamford Bridge for good reason. He’s most effective joining play, arriving at the key moments rather than sitting higher up and attempting to unlock defences on the edge of their own box.
He’s capable of that but not consistently. There’s more to his game; he was being wasted, and we saw it as he faded in the first two seasons under Mourinho before disappearing altogether last term when Guus Hiddink took over.
There was a moment in the FA Cup when he scored a hat-trick against MK Dons, but overall, 2015/16 was the biggest disappointment of Oscar’s Chelsea career.
Oscar now has 75 goals and assists in his Chelsea career (38G, 37A). Underrated. #cfc
— Jake Cohen (@JakeFCohen) September 11, 2016
It was because of those failures that we expected him to leave. There didn’t seem to be a way back, not for a player who disappeared so spectacularly when Chelsea needed him the most.
The Blues needed the likes of Oscar to get them out of the rut they were in, but not enough of them turned up, the former Internacional man included. For the club to get back on their feet again and start challenging, they needed a player with more substance than the Brazilian.
Or so we thought.
Instead, Conte has redefined what Oscar is to this Chelsea side. His role now carries the same expectation in terms of winning the ball back and pressing, yet he’s doing it all in a different way. He’s not too far forward, but equally he isn’t dropping too deep to be ineffective.
One theory had been that he needed to drop to that bit deeper to become an essential part of Chelsea’s midfield. Based on the system from last season and previous years, there was always a desire to see the Brazilian partner Matic in the pivot.
Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images
Conte is doing that in one way, but he’s ripped up the rule book and started again. There is no No. 10 at Chelsea these days, and as for the double pivot, that’s gone too. It’s a lone holding player in the form of N’Golo Kante, with Matic and Oscar ahead of him to complete an attacking quartet alongside Eden Hazard and Willian behind Diego Costa.
Chelsea are winning because of it and so, too, is Oscar. He looks a player again; he’s revitalised because he’s playing the football he should be. It’s because of that Cesc Fabregas can’t get in this Chelsea team.
For all his flair and quality, the Spaniard lacks the intensity Oscar is bringing to the Blues right now. He’s had to become a super sub.
Conte has found the system that works for the Brazilian. The early stages of the manager’s reconstruction of that central area have been spun on Oscar’s talents. He’s become the counterpoint of the Chelsea midfield.
Should Conte stick to those principles, we’ll continue seeing the best from Oscar. This is no false dawn.
Garry Hayes is Bleacher Report’s lead Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @garryhayes