While all eyes were on who Mikel Arteta would choose between the sticks at Fulham on Saturday, the manager had another interesting dilemma further forward. After an up and down start to life at Arsenal, Nicolas Pepe began to finally establish himself as a right inside-forward towards the end of the last campaign.
The free transfer of Willian from Chelsea is the most high profile incoming to the club so far this summer. The Brazilian plays in the same position as Pepe and, while attacking depth is never a bad thing; it does rather reflect that fact that Arteta is not all in on the idea of Pepe as his right-winger.
There are certain players that just always play, even if they require injections, strapping or any other additional upholstery to keep them upright on the pitch. Aubameyang, Granit Xhaka for example- they always play. Every club has a player or two in much the same mould.
The £72m paid for Pepe is “play no matter what” money and he certainly hasn’t reached that status yet and the salary outlay on Willian suggests his coach doesn’t think he ever will. As Arsenal fans, we might just have to compartmentalise the fee paid for Pepe- he will still be a very important player for Arsenal who will play plenty of games and will contribute.
Quite a few of Arsenal’s record transfers have veered in a similar direction- Malcolm MacDonald, Charlie Nicholas, Sylvain Wiltord, Jose Antonio Reyes and Andrey Arshavin were far from disastrous but probably didn’t quite reach the heights the club hoped when they signed the cheques.
With all of the usual caveats that it was “only Fulham” and that we are a grand total of one match into a new season, I found the performance of Willian very interesting at Craven Cottage on Saturday. I have previously talked up his ability to isolate full-backs and beat them in short spaces, holding the width of the pitch on the right flank.
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— Arsenal (@Arsenal) September 14, 2020
He certainly has this quality, which will be useful against defensive blocks more formidable than Fulham’s. However, I think there are other qualities Arteta really appreciates in Willian. The player was brought to England by Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, who subsequently tried to re-sign him while at Manchester United and showed interest in doing so again at Spurs.
There is a reason that Mourinho loves Willian, it’s because he is the structure guy. As well as carrying attacking threat, he does what he’s told, he tracks back and he presses well. Being ‘the structure guy’ on the right-wing has been the central theme of Willian’s career. For Brazil, he provided a natural counter-balance to Neymar on the left, who was afforded license to roam in-field.
Willian’s role was to provide threat on the right, with Dani Alves overlapping him. Largely, he provided dependability on the right, while Brazil’s left-sided triangle of Neymar, Coutinho and Marcelo played free-form jazz on the other side of the pitch. He’s a human rhythm section and he expended a similar service at Stamford Bridge while Eden Hazard noodled away on the left.
At Arsenal, Willian has been parachuted into a team whose principal attacking threat is a left-sided forward. Aubameyang isn’t a dribbler like Neymar or Hazard, but he abandons his post on the left and into the spotlight. If Hazard and Neymar are lead guitarists, Aubameyang is a frontman, but the principle will probably be the same for Willian- keep the rhythm section running smoothly. (Lacazette has a similar role, providing continuity and structure).
Pepe is a different type of player, of course. He doesn’t really slot into the structure, the structure has to be doctored to extract the best from his talents. Arsenal clipped up Aubameyang’s identikit goals against Liverpool and Fulham and what really struck me, comparing them, was how Willian played the killer ball in the latter example.
Practice makes perfect. pic.twitter.com/RR1uIyN1TN
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) September 14, 2020
The Brazilian had trained with Arsenal for little over a week prior to the Fulham game, yet he was able to slot right into the heavily rehearsed play instantaneously. To reiterate, this is why Mourinho and Tite like Willian- he follows instruction. We also saw what an excellent delivery he has from set-pieces and, together with Arsenal’s deployment of a set-piece coach this summer, it’s another potential marginal gain (not to mention that they have recruited three centre-halves this year who stand at more than 6 foot 2 inches).
The Gunners missed 4th place by 10 points last season. Getting better at beating the teams at the bottom and improving on set-pieces makes up a good portion of that gap. For all his qualities as an old fashioned ‘drop the shoulder’ winger, Willian potentially brings some midfield balance to a side that has sacrificed a midfielder to bolster the defence.
As Lewis Ambrose’s column this week suggested, it is a little simplistic to say that Arsenal only plays with two central midfielders given the fluidity that has been built into the system. However, nominally Arsenal do only play with two central-midfielders and Ainsley Maitland-Niles buttresses that by playing a hybrid wing-back-cum-third-midfielder role from the left-hand side.
Willian’s ability to play inside, as he showed at Craven Cottage, potentially provides another scaffold on the right of Arsenal’s midfield. The Brazilian will step inside and operate as that third central midfielder. He also drops a little deeper than Pepe which can help the Gunners’ issues with connecting the midfield to the attack.
Both Bellerin and Maitland-Niles can provide an overlap or an underlap from right wing-back to complement Willian’s movements. (This may well be true of Cedric Soares but I haven’t seen enough to judge yet). Pepe is a player you need to feed, Willian is a player that feeds.
Recently, I revisited Phil Costa’s profile on William Saliba at St. Etienne who, per Phil, “funnel(led) most of their forward play through wide areas and more importantly, stretching the pitch.” I also revisited Phil’s profile of Gabriel. In this piece, Phil highlighted one of Gabriel’s signature passes, a “raking long diagonal used to isolate the right winger against his full back.”
I took care of the profile duties for January signing Pablo Mari based on his stint in Jorge Jesus’ hugely successful Flamengo side. If you will allow me the liberty of quoting myself, “He uses the ball well and can play long or diagonal passes with that left-foot.” That is three centre-halves acquired from teams who built their attacks from wide areas, all of whom have a good diagonal pass in their armoury.
The old switch-a-roo is going to be a common pillar of Arsenal’s attacking play and Arsenal have recruited two left-footed centre halves skilled at hitting a right-winger. Willian also showed at Craven Cottage that he can launch a devilish diagonal himself. At the risk of getting ahead of myself, this is what recruiting with a plan looks like and it’s clear that Willian is a big part of that plan.