It was interesting to read Mikel Arteta talk about the reasons behind the signing of Willian on a free transfer. There was a financial element, of course, in that he is nominally ‘free’, in as much as we didn’t have to pay a fee for him.
“That really suits us at the moment,” said the manager, and you can understand why. He also spoke about the player’s character, calling him a ‘winner’, and making it clear that’s something he feels the squad needs. In his seven years at Chelsea, the Brazilian racked up plenty of medals and trophies, including two Premier League titles and a Europa League win in a game I have no recollection of whatsoever.
But if you’re looking for the real insight into this deal – from a footballing perspective at least – Arteta says:
We had a clear intention to strengthen in the attacking midfielder and the winger positions – he is a player that gives us a lot of versatility, he can play in three or four different positions.
To me that says a lot. If transfer funds are limited, bringing in players who can play in more than one position makes some sense. Willian has played a lot on the right at Chelsea; he can play from the left too; and we keep hearing about how we have plans to use him centrally. I’m not quite sure how much I buy into that, but time will tell, and across that front three and just behind, he’s someone who can do a job. A player with a lot of experience, who won’t need time to adapt to English football or anything like that – someone who can come in and contribute now.
Essentially, we’ve brought in a Swiss Army Knife of a player. And here’s the thing about them, they are very useful. The knife isn’t bad, the nail file is handy, the scissors is a bit fiddly and you wouldn’t want to use it for any too substantial, and if you’re ever in need of a screwdriver they can do a job there. It’s practical, convenient and perfectly serviceable. Are they as good as tools specifically designed to a particular job? No, but if you can’t afford those, it’s always good to have one around the house, just in case.
I think Willian can bring things to this team that it is missing. He’s clearly a good player who will add to a squad which is going to have a lot of football to play next season, with Premier League, Europe, the two cup competitions, and all in a congested, truncated time period because of what’s happened to the Covid-impacted schedule. I really hope he does well, and it’s easy to see why he’s been brought in. As much as that FA Cup win was amazing, we were so reliant on our starting XI that day. With all due respect to our very talented young players, there wasn’t a lot of experienced quality on the bench, so this helps bridge that gap a little too.
However, I think it’s also reasonable to harbour some concerns. Even leaving aside the Chelsea connection – which could be dismissed as just a quirk of fandom – signing a 32 year old to a three year contract is pretty generous, to say the least. It’s an absolutely great deal for the player, not so much for the club. Right now we currently have issues with players in their 30s who we are finding it very hard to move on, so what happens if, in 18 months time, we’re dealing with a Willian whose decline is quite sharp? We have an aging player on big money whose contributions are dwindling but who will have every right to sit tight and see out his contract if he so chooses. Perhaps that’s a very cynical, worst-case-scenario outlook, but it’s not as if this hasn’t type of thing hasn’t played out at this club too often in recent times. Are we learning? However positive you might be about what Willian can bring as player, there’s a risk element that has to considered.
As Tim points out in his excellent Willian profile piece, while there’s a good case to be made for Willian in isolation, he’s now the third Kia Joorabchian client at the club. In fact, three of our last four signings have been represented by him. I wrote about him yesterday too, and in the wider context of how we recruit players, I think it’s unquestionably something we should have our eyes open to – and that’s being as diplomatic as I can about it. There are a lot of players on the market, there’s a lot of talent out there, and we’re currently fishing from a very small pond.
Could the money we’re going to invest in Willian over three years have been better used to bring in a younger player with more chance to develop, and who will retain some value if/when we chose to move him on? If you sign a 23 year old who doesn’t quite live up to expectations, you have a 25 year old who will likely have suitors. If he does well, you have a player in his prime years doing the business. I know we have some short-term considerations, and as I said I can see Willian being a useful player for us next season, I wonder about our long-term strategy because these short-term deals have been very hit and miss for us.
Let’s hope that Willian is a hit though, because we really need him to be. Even a well-used Swiss Army Knife can help get you out of trouble.
Finally for today, it’s very interesting to read that Arsenal have launched an investigation into the Nicolas Pepe transfer. Coming not long after KSE appointed their own lawyer to the board, it’s hard not to connect some dots there. Almost from day one there have been whispers about the structure of the deal, some of the people who were involved in it, and some of the financial elements. Already the rumour mill is in overdrive about potential departures at executive level, but let’s see what happens and we can talk about it more then.
For now, have a great Saturday, and if you haven’t had a chance to listen yet, there’s a brand new Arsecast for you too.