It seems only a matter of time before Willian is confirmed as an Arsenal player, but if this slightly risky deal is already polarising Gunners supporters, then it’s a fitting continuation of the Brazilian’s Premier League career so far.
“Willian has a funny legacy at Chelsea,” The Athletic’s Liam Twomey tells CaughtOffside. “He’s incredibly polarising among the fan base, and the most universally popular thing he did in his career at Stamford Bridge was turning down Tottenham at the 11th hour to join Chelsea in the summer of 2013.”
It’s hard to argue with his record since then, however, with Willian going on to play a key role in two Premier League title victories, as well as picking up the FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League and Chelsea’s Player of the Year in 2015/16.
At the age of 32, however, eyebrows are being raised as Arsenal look to be favouring agent contacts over more sophisticated recruitment methods when it comes to transfer decisions, with Willian expected to sign a long-term contract at the Emirates Stadium when other suitors wouldn’t go there.
Are Arsenal fans justified in feeling a little concerned by the circumstances of this deal, or does Willian’s Chelsea career suggest there’s more still to come from him?
Read on for an idea of what Arsenal fans can expect from their imminent new signing…
“Cream of the crop”
That was how one of his former managers Jose Mourinho described him, and that was when he was in charge of Manchester United. A player well known for his work rate as well as his quality, Willian was “loved by every manager he’s had at Chelsea”, according to Chelsea News writer Will Faulks.
“He’s got a great combination of tactical intelligence, physical fitness and technical ability that mean he can fit into most systems and is useful at any stage of the game,” Faulks tells CaughtOffside. “He’s scored important goals and put in big performances when the team has really needed it. Off the pitch he’s ideal too – humble, quiet and a perfect professional by all accounts.”
In a slightly youthful side seemingly lacking leadership, some Arsenal fans will undoubtedly be hoping Willian can provide that, but would most at Stamford Bridge really describe him that way? “I wouldn’t call Willian a leader as such,” Twomey says. “He’s not the most vocal and his head can drop in difficult moments. He is, however, a superb professional who works hard on and off the pitch to keep himself in optimum shape, and he generally does his bit defensively for the team. All of his teammates and managers have valued his work ethic, and it’s why Lampard leaned on him so heavily this season.”
As Arsenal surely chase a creative player to replace Mesut Ozil, however, are Willian’s numbers really good enough? Faulks admits his lack of end product has frustrated CFC fans at times. “The fact that he’s never managed double figure for goals in the league often comes up,” Faulks says. “Despite always putting a shift in he can certainly be inconsistent over the course of a match, sometimes making inexplicably terrible decisions in the final third for a player of his quality.”
Not just a short-term option
Arsenal can’t afford to be too picky when it comes to signings, with a proven talent like Willian on a free transfer looking good value, even if some fans will be concerned it still doesn’t represent a sensible investment due to his age.
The Brazil international has just turned 32, but has just had one of his most productive seasons at Chelsea, with those who’ve watched him closely backing him to have what it takes to enjoy a lengthy career at the top level.
“I interviewed Willian earlier this season and he joked that he wants to play until he’s 40!” Twomey tells CaughtOffside. “He lives the life of an athlete off the pitch, working out in his own time and eating right. He’s a quiet family-oriented guy, certainly not a party boy like some high-profile Brazilians. I’m sure that’s contributed to him suffering relatively few injuries during his career.”
With James Milner still going strong for Liverpool, could Willian fulfil a similar role at Arsenal? “His game depends on speed and acceleration more than Milner’s and while neither have abandoned him yet, both can drop off quickly as a player gets older,” Twomey says. “That should be Arsenal’s main worry, but his work ethic and technical ability on the ball should serve him well as he approaches his mid-30s.”
The best players can adapt, of course, and there’s an argument that Willian hasn’t actually been used enough in his preferred number ten role throughout his time in west London, despite largely making a name for himself there earlier in his career. A change in role under Mikel Arteta could prolong his career, but Faulks is also slightly unconvinced about what will be left once the physical aspects decline. “Given his speed and stamina are so integral to his game, a physical drop-off would reduce his usefulness. But if you were going to give any 32-year-old a long-term deal it would be him.”
After the frequent Ozil drama in recent times, the last thing Arsenal will want is another troublemaker in their squad. It’s not exactly a characteristic associated with Willian, but one particular incident with Antonio Conte comes to mind.
The winger notably cropped Conte out of an Instagram photo celebrating the Blues’ FA Cup final win over Manchester United in 2018, but Faulks believes that “tells you more about Conte than Willian” and that in general he’s “not put a foot wrong in terms of discipline or attitude.”
Twomey echoes that view, saying that the Conte incident was “shocking because it was so out of character for Willian”. Arsenal fans can probably breathe a sigh of relief, then, though Twomey does suggest there could be the potential for trouble as the 32-year-old perhaps inevitably becomes less of a regular starter in years to come.
“Willian’s attitude is generally great,” he says. “The only problem is that sitting on the bench a lot really gets him down, which might make him a little harder to manage as he gets older and is no longer a regular starter. That said, David Luiz has much more of a disruptive reputation than Willian and Mikel Arteta seems to have kept him in line pretty easily so far.”
“He hates Tottenham”
If hating Tottenham makes you popular at Chelsea, it’s an even bigger deal at Arsenal, and there’s no doubt Willian has his history with Spurs.
As noted by Twomey above, the Brazilian notably snubbed the north Londoners for Chelsea in the last minute back in 2013, and Blues fans have been keen to remind their rivals about it ever since.
Since then, he’s picked up four goals and two assists to haunt Tottenham, as well as joining in with a chant referencing his hatred for them after Chelsea sealed the Premier League title with a win at West Brom in 2017…
— amadí ¨? (@amadoit__) May 12, 2017
“Many of his best performances for Chelsea came against Spurs – most notably in the 2-0 win at their new stadium in September,” Twomey notes. Remarkably, they may even have been a potential destination for him this summer, though Spurs writer Alasdair Gold of football.london tells CaughtOffside he is “not really sure it was ever a goer”. Arsenal fans may like to believe that’s because they remain the more attractive option out of the two clubs, and that Willian has perhaps shown that his “hatred” of their rivals is genuine. “Mourinho said he wasn’t going in the direction of signing older players this summer – it’s not really Spurs’ style,” Gold says, but perhaps that’s the line being put out there by the club after a second rejection?
All in all, there’s plenty there for Arsenal fans to be optimistic about. The Gunners will understandably be cautious after similar raids on Chelsea for Petr Cech and David Luiz in the twilight of their careers, but Willian arrives in fine form and as arguably one of the most underrated players of the last decade in the Premier League.
With expectations unlikely to be sky high, Willian has shown he has the qualities on the pitch, as well as off it, to make this move a success.