The Willian Conundrum – Why has it gone so wrong for the Brazilian?
On the 14th August 2020, Arsenal announced the signing of Chelsea’s silky Brazilian winger Willian on a free transfer. Whilst the move raised some eyebrows from skeptical fans, the general consensus was that this was a strong piece of business. Willian had been one of Chelsea’s top performers statistically for the past few seasons and for a zero-cost transfer, it seemed as though the Gunners had secured a real coup with the Brazilian’s arrival.
Fast forward to January 2021 and the mood has changed dramatically. The initial skeptics had their beliefs confirmed and those who were initially excited by the move have been left with a sour taste in their mouths. In 21 appearances and 1232 minutes of first team football, in all competitions, the Brazilian is yet to score and has registered three assists. In fact, two of those three assists came during the first match of the season against a newly promoted Fulham and the third against Wolves in the 2-1 defeat in November. Since then, the Brazilian has not been directly involved with a goal in 310 minutes of Premier League football.
So where did it all go wrong for the 32-year-old? How did a deal that showed so much promise turn into yet another transfer misfire for the Gunners?
Willian – The Origin of his Difficulties
To start with, let us take a look at the basics. Despite his near-impeccable injury history, missing just four games in his seven-year spell at Chelsea, signing a 32-year-old always comes with great risk. Whilst that is not to say that senior players cannot perform at a high level, as the Premier League has plenty of examples of older players succeeding well into their thirties, it has become apparent that the Brazilian is not quite bursting with the same energy that he demonstrated during his peak years at Chelsea.
However, Willian had an outstanding season with the West London outfit last season, picking up nine goals and seven assists in 36 Premier League appearances – his highest ever PL goal tally in a single season. A summer break can not make that much of a difference in a player’s physical abilities and therefore we must look a little deeper into the matter.
Before this recent impressive run of five wins in their last six games, the entire Arsenal team has been underwhelming in terms of statistical performance and results. There have been consistent and hard working players during the rough patch but even star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who signed an eye-watering new deal in the summer to commit his future to the club, has scored just five times in 17 league appearances. Similarly, Nicolas Pepe, who joined the club from Lille for around £72m in 2019, has scored three times in 13 league matches. Therefore, it is somewhat unfair to blame Willian entirely for his lack of output when quality has dipped across the board.
A Deeper Look at Willian’s Struggles
Comparing Willian’s statistical performance this season with his 19/20 season with Chelsea provides a good indicator of where and why his level has dipped. So far for Arsenal in the Premier League, Willian has registered just 0.5 dribbles per game, in comparison to 1.8 per game for Chelsea last season. Furthermore, with 0.9 fouls against p/g a marked decrease on his 1.3 p/g last campaign and 29.5 passes p/g down from 39.9, it is evident that one of the biggest factors in Willian’s downfall has been his general lack of time spent on the ball and involvement in play. As aforementioned, this is partly the responsibility of the team’s stagnant start to the campaign but is also certainly a byproduct of Mikel Arteta’s tactics.
Additionally, Willian’s pass accuracy has shot up in comparison to last season, from 82.7% to 88.3%, and this, as well as the reduction in dribbles revealed prior, serves to indicate that the Brazilian has been instructed to take less risks. His duty in his team has changed from an incisive chance-creator at Chelsea to a more transitional role with the Gunners, where it is his responsibility to try and bring other players into the game, in keeping with Arteta’s style.
Perhaps an element of Willian’s rocky start to his Arsenal career lies with the Brazilian’s inability to adapt to a new structure and squad after seven years with his previous club. However, with Chelsea’s revolving door of managers, there is certainly more to it. Arsenal’s struggles in the first half of the season undoubtedly played a massive part in many criticisms of Willian and before we all write him off, it may be safer to reserve final judgement until the end of the season – in the hope that a good run of form rubs off on his statistics and overall quality of performance.
Stats via WhoScored