Can Willian be Arsenal’s Midfield Savior?
Arsenal made their first signing this season with the acquisition of Willian on a free transfer from Chelsea.
In his prime, Willian would be the perfect winger for Mikel Arteta. His pace, technique, and ability to slow down before bursting to beat his man and deliver a final pass for a teammate, is world-class. His ability to receive off both feet, before executing an attacking action, allows him to be involved in a lot of moves which end with a good quality chance. However, unfortunately for Willian and Arteta, the Brazilian is 32 and his pace, whilst still there, is slowly diminishing and with a 3-year contract, will only further decrease over the years. Arsenal have a plethora of young and world-class wingers, with the likes of Aubameyang, Pepe, and Saka, being just a handful. There is less of a need for yet another, such as Willian.
Willian’s main party trick is the aforementioned burst of pace when taking his opponents on in a 1 v 1. Aside from this, Willian enjoys getting on the ball and always looks forward. He doesn’t want possession for possession’s sake, but rather looks to initiate attacking moves.
Under Frank Lampard last season, Willian appeared 7 times on the left, 32 on the right and 6 times as an attacking midfielder. In all competitions, Willian scored 11 goals and assisted 9 times. With Maurizio Sarri as manager in the 2018/19 season, Willian played 30 games on the left and 26 on the right. He went on to score 8 goals and assisted 14 in all competitions.
Why Central Midfield?
Arsenal have great depth on both wings, with Pepe and Saka nailing down the right wing and Aubamyang being the undisputed left-winger. It’s clear that even when Lacazette doesn’t play, that Arteta would still rather Aubameyang plays on the left, with more often than not Nketiah taking the central striker role. In central midfield, Arsenal have somewhat of a conundrum. Dani Ceballos was excellent in the back end of last season and became indispensable for Arsenal, before returning to Real Madrid at the end of his loan. He complemented Granit Xhaka brilliantly, with the pair playing a massive role in Arsenal’s FA Cup triumph. Mohamed Elneny in the Community Shield victory over Liverpool looked to be a completely different player. Despite this, he isn’t Ceballos and is a different partner for Xhaka. None of Arteta’s current options, give that little something Ceballos did.
Without Ceballos, Arsenal lack tempo, control, intelligence, and someone who can drop their shoulder and beat an opponent under pressure. Could Willian play this role? His technical excellence, bursts of speed, and exploitation in pockets of space, suit this. Often his first touch is into space, which sells his opponent and allows him to avoid the press. As well as this, his involvement in games and want for the ball is tailor-made for a midfield position. The real question mark is over Willian’s defensive ability. Willian works hard and tracks back. However, in a central position, he may get caught out positionally. He must also put tackles in and at times physically hold his own in dangerous areas. This is not something that screams Willian.
On The Ball
Willian’s involvement in possession is great. Last season in all competitions, Willian on average played 44.46 passes per 90 minutes. Willian also plays 2.61 long passes per 90, with a success rate of 63.80%. As you would expect, a large part of Willian’s game is his dribbling. Per 90 minutes, Willian attempts 5.57 dribbles and completes 63.39%. In total, Willian has attempted 443 offensive challenges and has won 222 (50.11%). The trust teammates have in Willian is very important, especially if he is to play centrally for Arsenal. Willian actually ranks eighth for passes received from teammates in the Premier League, with 33.42 per 90 minutes. He looks to make the angle for the pass and this will be vitally important for Mikel Arteta.
A large part of Ceballos’ game last season was his quality and use of possession. Willian’s impact during possession spells is very good. His expected goals chain per 90 minutes (XGChainP/90) of 0.88, is very high, with the highest in the league being 1.3. For possession spells that end without shots and key passes (XGBuild-upP/90), they result in an expected goals of 0.39. At Chelsea, Willian was closer to finishing moves. But as XGChain shows, he can be very involved at deeper stages as well and can orchestrate moves.
Willian works hard for his side and when on the wing tracks back with great efficiency. In a central midfield role, Willian will need to be able to read oppositions patterns, cut passes, block passing lanes, and neutralise opposition spaces. Willian needs to be disciplined in defence and ensure he can maintain defensive compactness. That has been key to Arsenal’s resurgence and their improvement in defence. The team now know when to press and when to drop off and get behind the ball to defend. The midfielders are coordinated, defend the correct spaces, and protect the defenders.
Willian’s defensive output is shown through his 1.89 interceptions per 90 minutes. Furthermore, Willian makes 4.08 recoveries per 90 minutes. Willian also makes 2.61 ball recoveries in the oppositions half. Willian ranks 29th for counter-pressing recoveries in the opposition’s half and 13th for counter-pressing recoveries in the opposition’s final third, with 1.89 per 90 minutes.
In conclusion, Willian could well play effectively in the central midfield role as a “loose 8”. His awareness and ability on the ball would seemingly allow him to play a positional game. His intelligence allows him to speed up moves, progress possession and open doors/pockets for other players. With Willian reaching 32 years of age, the explosive pacey winger, which has blessed the Premier League for the last couple of seasons, will be less and less as his speed deteriorates. This opens the door for him to relocate inside and be Arsenal’s creative link.
For Mikel Arteta, Willian can replace Dani Ceballos or potentially with an adaptation to Ceballos’ role – play with Ceballos, should the Spaniard return. This would allow Arteta to rest Xhaka or alter the system depending on the opposition. Willian in this central role could well be very useful against teams who play in a deep block. He could pick up the ball, take on opponents, and create space for others. He can receive and use his technique and with one touch, beat his opponent and move the ball on. This type of player can help the other players shine and find space where they can hurt their opponents. It would be interesting to see whether Arteta would trust Willian against sides who notoriously press high and with aggression.
I think the likelihood of Willian taking up a midfield role is higher than expected upon his signing. He can offer a similar style to Ceballos and, who knows, might be better.