In an eventful season for Arsenal (largely for the wrong reasons) few subjects have animated the Gunners fan base quite like the signing (and the form) of Willian. Signed from Chelsea on a free transfer, handing a three-year contract to a 32-year old whose agent happens to have connections with the club’s higher ups didn’t sit right with the majority of Arsenal fans and that was before he even kicked a ball.
Initially the length of the deal felt more like an issue for the future, while the final year of his contract was never likely to produce anything close to value given his salary, the first year at least, should have seen a decent return for an experienced Premier League player. The first few months of the Brazilian’s tenure have been an unmitigated disaster and these were supposed to be the sunlit uplands of the questionable contract he was awarded.
The player has improved recently but from an incredibly low bar. There remains a perception that Willian is treated favourably by the coach compared to other players and there is some truth to this. Firstly, the damage has been done now in respect of the contract; Arsenal just could not afford another Ozil type scenario where an experienced and expensive player is being paid not to play.
Arteta had cause to persevere with Willian for reasons beyond his own reputational damage. That resource is allocated now and Arteta is not coaching Manchester City, he cannot just sit Willian in the reserves and spend tens of millions on a shinier, newer toy. It is also important for the coach’s reputation too, however. He has to prove that he can coach improvement out of players if he is to realise his own potential as an ambitious young manager.
We are told that Willian’s mid-pandemic “business trip” to Dubai was dealt with internally so it’s difficult to know whether he was treated favourably for that act of indiscipline. Ultimately, Willian’s form and confidence became so bad that even Arteta had no option but to stop picking him. The Brazilian didn’t start a Premier League game for two and a half months until he was selected against Burnley last weekend.
He has won his place back in the side based on some meagre showings, on the face of it. Arteta was keen to talk up his impact from the bench against Benfica, when Willian was called for ahead of Nicolas Pepe and Gabriel Martinelli. His assist for Kieran Tierney was not exactly a surgical delivery that cleaved Benfica’s packed defence apart.
However, post-game, Arteta was effusive about the player’s impact. “Willian specifically, I think he changed the game. He gave us much more composure in moments, produced some creativity, produced the goal for Kieran and we need everybody on board.” It read as an over inflated tribute but there is some merit in trying to rebuild the confidence of a damaged player. The coach had previously said the criticism of the player was “not unfair,” after all.
It is still fair to say that Willian has to do far less to impress the coach than Pepe or Gabriel Martinelli do, for example- but there are reasons for that beyond favouritism. Well, it’s a favouritism of sorts, the simple fact is that Arteta prefers Willian’s qualities to those of his more unpredictable, yet more prolific attackers.
Willian provided another assist for Aubameyang at Turf Moor on Saturday. As assists go, it was little more impressive than the five yard sideways shuffle to Tierney against Benfica. However, it is not the quality of the pass that the coach is interested in, it’s the position Willian plays it from. In short, he conforms to the manager’s idea of strictly choreographed pattern play in attack. (His assist for David Luiz at Leicester, from a carefully constructed setpiece routine, is a nice illustration of this).
Against Burnley, Arteta asked Willian to tuck inside and play a dual no.10 role alongside Odegaard, giving Tierney the freedom to overlap him on the outside. It’s fair to say that Pepe and Martinelli are not tailor made for this role. When Willian receives the pass from Partey, the run and subsequent pass to Aubameyang are simple and, in Arteta’s case, that is because Willian is standing exactly where Arteta wanted him to stand.
That move will have been rehearsed on the training ground. Willian has played under the likes of Jose Mourinho, Tite and Maurizio Sarri and has been greatly appreciated by them all due in part to his ability to follow instruction. The only coach he has notably fallen out with is Antonio Conte and this is largely because Conte’s 352 formation and deployment of wing-backs creates redundancy for a winger like Willian.
For Chelsea, Willian provided a technical counterbalance to Eden Hazard on the opposite flank. The Brazilian provided structure and technical security while Hazard had freedom to drift and dribble. Willian offered a very similar service for Brazil, where he played on the opposite flank to Neymar and provided space for Dani Alves to overlap him.
In short, Willian has never been a star in his own right; his role has always been to make the team’s stars shine more brightly. On the face of it, with some combination of Tierney, Saka, Martinelli or Aubameyang on the left, you can see the rationale for Arteta craving a more predictable presence on the right flank. That is where Willian played for the majority of the opening weeks of his Arsenal career.
The problem is that is absolutely did not work, he did not make the team’s stars shine any more brightly and, if anything, we came to a stage where he achieved the opposite. Recently he has moved to the left flank as Arteta continues to tinker with his attack. The ceiling is lower for Willian than it is for Pepe and Martinelli because the coach craves technical security and pattern play in attack.
Pepe and Martinelli are both more instinctive and less tactically groomed. However, they are also more likely to score a goal and that sums up Arteta’s dilemma in a nutshell. Arsenal are dominating opponents far better than they were and this is, in part, due to their improved pattern play in attack aided and abetted by a proper number 10 in Smith-Rowe or Odegaard.
The issue is that they don’t convert that dominance into goals. Willian has not scored for Arsenal yet and has scarcely even come close and Lacazette hasn’t taken a shot in 271 minutes at the time of writing. Pepe or Martinelli are far more likely to produce individual moments of inspiration (or perspiration in Martinelli’s case) but many a patterned play will die at their feet.
The team is still overly reliant on Aubameyang for goals. Saka is stepping up to the plate but given Arsenal’s four central midfielders (Xhaka, Ceballos, Elneny and Partey) have a grand total of one Premier League goal between them this season, Arsenal need more than one and a half forwards capable of troubling the onion bag (assuming that Aubameyang and Lacazette is now a binary option).
This might not be an issue that can be solved in the short term either. Willian, Aubameyang, Pepe, Saka and Martinelli are all on long-term contracts and even if Lacazette is sold and replaced by another striker, you would imagine this mystery centre-forward will not operate in tandem with Aubameyang.
You could, of course, put Auba back on the left but that isn’t really going to help you to build attacks and sustain pressure either. Eventually, Arteta might have to coach Willian to offer more end-product (which seems unlikely given that he’s approaching 33) or else coach Pepe and Martinelli to conform to his vision for rigidly structured attack without losing their mojo (there are some encouraging signs in that respect with Nicolas Pepe). For the time being, the coach has to choose between a series of more binary options.