Winging It: Willian and the definition of insanity
Willian’s introduction to the Arsenal squad was complicated at the outset. At least, to Arsenal supporters. To those decrying the signing, the 32-year old was seen as an unnecessary, aging anchor that would hamper the team and not offer much as a goal-scoring or passing threat. Now, it’s clear that the outcry was justified as Willian’s lackluster production and inconsistencies loom large with the approaching 21-22 campaign. To repeat last year’s exercise in futility with Willian playing starting minutes would be the definition of insanity.
The signing and the sign of things to come
Willian joined the Gunners in August of 2020 on a free transfer from Chelsea. Immediately, supporters questioned the signing. Petr Cech and David Luiz joined the Gunners from the rival Blues and neither seemed to be a truly impeccable coup. Both performed well at times during their careers with Arsenal, but their high wages and ages made them seem like past-prime acquisitions.
Some welcomed Willian to team, hopeful that he would build off a strong end to the Premier League season with Chelsea and hit the ground running at Arsenal. Some expressed hope and belief that would Willian would exceed expectations and become a mainstay in the starting 11.
Well, let’s pretend Willian worked at your office. Let’s pretend he just walked out of his yearly performance review. He and you both know that he’s holding a sheet that says, “Needs Improvement.”
Willian’s performance in 2020 was more than inconsistent; it was non-existent. His lack of meaningful movement; his awkward attacking and defensive positioning; and careless running and lack of intensity held the team back. Often, he was identifiable on the pitch for his mistakes and his level of play.
As a winger, Willian is relied upon to assist with the forward movement of the attacking players up the pitch. He’s the crux of off-ball and on-ball movement between the half-space and the wing, opening up lanes for progression of the midfielders and the attackers.
Arteta usually opted for Willian to play on the right wing, often alongside of Alexandre Lacazette. His pairing was to allow Lacazette to hold up play or allow the frenchman to push up the pitch and wait for a timely cross. Additionally, Willian would be able to provide overlapping play with the right wing back, Bellerin.
Yet, often, Willian would arrive in a channel only to remain static, receiving the ball and then waiting for a run rather than continue the progression to entice the attacker to move forward and receive. Or, he’d occupy space, but would not offer meaningful opportunities to offer a threat moving forward. Or, he’d neglect to provide any meaningful overlap with the surging wing back, missing a key pass that may have opened a hole in the defense.
Take a look at this shot from the November Aston Villa match-up. At this moment, the ball is being played from the midfield to the left wing-back, Tierney (wing-back at this moment, although he was playing defensively as the third center back), who now has the opportunity to look for movement from the left winger, Aubameyang, or to continue to push up the pitch and provide a cross into Lacazette. Lacazette and Aubameyang are pushing forward to support the attack.
Look at Willian. He may be on the other side of the passage of play, but he’s not near Lacazette. Should the cross sail too far, Willian’s positioning does not make him a threat for a follow-up shot, or attacking support.
Not sure if I am overreacting?
Here’s Willian’s positioning when the cross comes in. Not five yards behind the striker but ten to fifteen yards behind him. This offers no additional support for any reclamation of an errant ball and leaves the striker and the winger to try and supplement the attack on their own.
Willian’s positioning problems are apparent. As seen above, Willian seems a step behind offensively, but he also chooses odd spots to occupy during set pieces and defensively.
When he was on the pitch, Willian was at least in consideration for nearly every free kick opportunity and took most corners from the right-hand side of the pitch. Passionate Arsenal fans remember that most of his corners and free-kicks did not hit their marks. The balls either hit the first defender, or sailed over the far defender on the far post to hopefully hit the opposite winger or defender.
Following his taking of corners, Willian would often choose a “spectator’s” position.
Take a look at this image, also from the Villa match. Willian has just taken the corner and is making his way back into the offense. This ball has already taken a deflection and is on its way to land at the feet of Tierney. Willian has decided to position himself directly in the wing. Not a bad position, if he were the midfielder or right back. But, as the winger, you’d hope Willian would push to involve himself in the goal scoring opportunity.
Here’s the continuation of that play.
He’s still occupying the wing space, but is not in a position to make any meaningful movement into the play.
Arguments could be made that he was in a protective zone, allowing himself to recover defensively and track back. Or, that he is position to make a darting run into the space behind Lacazette.
But, he didn’t. He jogged into the box. As he so often chose to do last season, Willian jogged into a spot near the end of the meaningful aspect of the attack.
Effort and Intensity
Willian’s effort during runs, pressing, and his overall intensity during matches also were apparent weaknesses last season. Like any player, Willian does what he can to conserve energy and chooses carefully when to sprint and make the hard runs. But, it often seems he neglects to use his energy at the right time.
Note this run of play in the loss to Tottenham last year. Willian makes a good initial run in between defenders to offer Bellerin an outlet. Then, he curls back behind to offer the passing lane back, should Bellerin choose to move forward. That’s all fine.
But, watch the jog as Tierney surges forward. This is the most direct moment of the attack. This is the opportunity where all available attacking players should have a nose for the box and getting in for a rebound, deflection, or any opportunity for the ball. Near the end, at the bottom of the screen, Willian jogs into the box. He offers no threat to defenders as someone coming for the ball or keeping an eye out for mistakes.
Nit picky? Yes, but it’s the little things. Even the smallest effort counts.
Take a look at this moment. Same match. Watch Lacazette and Aubameyang respond to a loose ball. They both make the move to push towards the ball and retrieve it. Willian makes no move to adjust his stride.
Willian was a talented player. From his time at Shakhtar through his final year at Chelsea, he was able to provide brilliance at key moments. But, his flaws at Arsenal are too apparent for Mikel Arteta to continue to see him as a viable option on the wing. His start in the first pre-season match against Hibernian was worrisome, but hopefully the rumors about his departure progress to reality. Otherwise, time on the pitch for Willian will be viewed as insanity by the fanbase— especially as we were driven insane watching him.