Mikel Arteta’s blueprint to unlock the Willian Chelsea never did after Arsenal switch
With what will almost certainly be his final season at Chelsea now complete it is time for Willian to consider how he will settle in with his new employers Arsenal.
SaveChelsea reported on Friday that Willian was closing in on a move to the Emirates Stadium with Chelsea having failed to offer the three-year contract Arsenal is prepared to. Barring an unlikely change of heart from the Blues it would seem that the 32-year-old is destined to follow in the footsteps of Petr Cech and David Luiz by making a late-career switch from west to north London.
It is a move that has the backing of Arsenal head coach Mikel Arteta, who wants an experienced head to pair with young forwards such as Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith Rowe. They are the future of the club but their boss does not want to place too great a burden on them at a formative stage of their career.
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Enter Willian. Yet it is not quite as simple as plugging one veteran into the side and reaping the rewards.
If nothing else Arsenal have already made a rather significant investment in a player who plays in Willian’s preferred right-wing role: club record signing Nicolas Pepe. The £72million man had an encouraging enough first season but his ongoing adaptation to the Premier League will not be swifter if he is rotated with the former Chelsea man.
Pepe may be the only guaranteed fixed point in Arsenal’s attack next season although that should change when – and it is increasingly becoming a matter of when – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang signs a new contract that will tie him to the club until 2023.
Aubameyang, Pepe and then what? Alexandre Lacazette’s future is in doubt and dependent on whether any clubs make a tempting offer to Arsenal. The younger prospects may not be ready just yet to start week in, week out. There is space for Willian, but where is he best deployed?
The gaping chasm in the Arsenal side lies at the attacking pivot point, the space just in front of the penalty area where a No.10 operates. It is worth noting that Arteta will not always lay out his side with someone in that position but equally he knows his Mesut Ozil-less side struggle to break down opponents who set up in a low block.
Willian perhaps does not have quite the same eye for a pass as Arsenal’s current No.10 but he is certainly not short on creativity. According to fbref only five players had more shot-creating actions per 90 minutes last season than the Brazilian (5.02), three of whom play for Manchester City.
Notably, when you dig further into those numbers Willian ranks third in terms of the live ball passes that lead to shots – he is a better creator in open play than he is perhaps given credit for. A caveat of sorts lies in the comparatively ordinary 0.45 goal creating actions he had per 90, 28th in the league, and below the likes of Lacazette.
Arsenal needs a No.10 but it is fair to question just how experienced Willian is in that role. Last season he played just 208 minutes in the position according to Wyscout tracking data; he was an impressive creative force in a 5-2 win at Wolverhampton Wanderers in September but was given only 12 minutes in the role throughout 2020, those coming late in the 3-0 first-leg defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
Off the left
Willian tends not to operate through the middle that frequently but head coaches have consistently opted to deploy him on the left flank; indeed were it not for the presence of Eden Hazard during most of his Chelsea career he may not have been so tied to the right side of the pitch. After all when he arrived in London after spells with Shakhtar Donetsk and, briefly, Anzhi Makachkala he was a left winger.
As Willian noted in October: “I don’t have to stay on the right side. I can move around, I can move between the lines, I can move to the left side as well.
“I feel good playing in this way, and that’s why I have been playing better and better. I hope to continue like this.”
Wide on the left is a role where he has been marginally more effective as a force in the final third. Playing on the right since 2015/16 Willian averages 0.21 goals and 0.16 assists per 90, creating two chances. His expected goals are 0.1 per 90, his expected assists 0.26.
From the left Willian weighs in with 0.26 goals and 0.21 assists per 90 and his chance creation rises to 2.67. It is not a statistical fluke either, his expected goals are 0.2 per 90, his expected assists 0.33.
That should not necessarily be a surprise, Willian is inevitably going to be more of a goal threat cutting in onto his right foot than he would be on the other flank. And when he gets in a goalscoring position on his right foot he is capable of doing quite special things indeed, as he showed in Chelsea’s 2-0 win at Tottenham in December.
The quandary of putting Willian out on the left is what to do with Aubameyang. For all that he seems a natural fit through the middle the reality is that as an all-round player and even as a goalscorer Arsenal’s club captain is more effective when deployed wide on the left, free to dart infield and able to drift away from central defenders.
Arteta indicated his desire to “build the team” around Aubameyang in the afterglow of his match-winning brace against Chelsea in the FA Cup Final. What is not clear yet is what exactly that means. Even when Lacazette was sidelined or out of form the Arsenal head coach showed a reluctance to start his top scorer through the middle, instead giving Eddie Nketiah the chance to earn his spurs.
If Arteta intends to keep Aubameyang in the place where he is most effective then that means no room for Willian in his best spot.
It may ultimately be that in signing Willian Arsenal are reinforcing their bench more than their first team. That is no bad thing. If Lacazette stays – and so far there have not been any formal expressions of interest in his services – then Arteta’s front three with Aubameyang and Pepe flanking the Frenchman is not one to be sniffed at.
Arsenal’s problem this season has been what they can rely on off the bench. Nketiah, Nelson and Saka are prodigious talents but asking them to save games is putting a great weight on their shoulders, one that some of them are perhaps not ready to bear.
They can still get their chances off the bench next season but when Arteta is chasing a game or looking for a steady presence to see out a close match Willian seems like a more natural choice. If there is any way to learn the highs and lows of modern football it is to spend seven years at Chelsea.
In that time Willian has played every role: the complimentary piece in a front line with greater star power, the last man standing in the disastrous title defence of 2015/16 to the player that divides fans like few others.
It is not just at Stamford Bridge that he has learned about dealing with the weight of expectations. Arsenal technical director Edu has seen first hand the consistency that Willian brings with the Brazilian national team and he is believed to have offered a strong recommendation of the player’s attitude and discipline when the Gunners were weighing up the merits of handing a long-term contract to a player who will be approaching his 35th birthday at its conclusion.
For Brazil Willian was often forced to settle for a role where he was subservient to the brighter stars such as Neymar and Philippe Coutinho, something he did without complaint.
In the summer of 2019 Willian was on holiday in Israel, basking in the afterglow of the Europa League win over Arsenal, when a FaceTime call came from Brazil head coach Tite. He needed someone to replace the injured Neymar but needed to be sure that his proposed replacement was ready to enter the fray.
Willian’s reply was enough to convince any manager: “I’ve already packed all of my bags. I put everything in, I closed it and whenever you want me, I will come.”
Such attributes would be welcome at the Emirates Stadium where as many of the club’s 30-plus contingent are on the outside looking in (Ozil, Sokratis Papastathopoulos) as key parts of Arteta’s plans.
Even a club as unpredictable as Arsenal ought to provide few surprises for Willian and it is that which is perhaps the greatest gift he offers Arteta and the collection of rookies that the Gunners want to build around. Over £100,000-a-week is a lot to invest in someone who might only be a rotation option but Willian’s greatest value might come in the steadying hand he can bring through choppy waters.