This weekend, as Willian celebrated his 32nd birthday, he wrote an open letter to all Chelsea fans, meaning we know he has penned everything except his name on the line of an Arsenal contract. “We know.” Because in all likelihood that has been done as well and this week may start with his announcement.
Willian ends his heartfelt goodbye with, “The time has now come to move on. I am certainly going to miss my teammates. I will miss all the staff at the club who’ve always trated me like a son and I will miss the fans. I leave with my head held high, safe in the knowledge that I won things here and always did my best in a Chelsea shirt!“
While this news is not that shocking, it must be the final step before his deal with Arsenal is announced. What the terms of that deal aare will make all the difference in how people view his signing.
The fear with Willian, something I myself feel as well, has little to do with this year. In fact, this first year would likely be the year in which is level of play is certainly most aligned with the type of player those in support of this acquisition believe Arsenal are getting. It’s a fact that any doubter is well aware of, and certainly will lead to a tough year of taking some, “I told you so” harassment. This year, Arteta will have the task of capitalizing on this play in order to use what precious moments of brilliance Willian has left in the tank to produce for this side, but where does he fit?
With the impending deal and announcement, lets take a look at where Willian fits and make a few guesses and suggestions on how that will affect the rest of the squad.
By now, you are likely well aware that Willian offers Arsenal three positions — his main position on the right wing, left wing, and attacking mid. Not only does he offer an option at these positions, for this year, he offers a player that is simply better and more experienced than a lot of what Arsenal currently have in the side, meaning he needs to fit in somewhere. The idea that he could simply be a depth acquisition doesn’t wash with me.
Are Arsenal really at the team-building stage where they can afford to bring someone in for depth purposes when there are entire starting positions that need solid starting support? Can they afford at this moment to spend £20-30m on that depth? All the signs and writing on the wall says no.
Redundant employees being cut to offer a little more than £3m in spend to team investment suggests that £30m on depth is questionable at this time. Additionally, this year, Willian has made 8 appearances off the bench registering 0 goals, 0 assists, and a 6.36 player rating which is almost .75 below his average as a starter meaning he is arguably poor off the bench. So, let’s find a place for Willian.
On the right wing, Willian would be competing with Nicolas Pepe and Reiss Nelson. This makes Willian’s input into that side a delicate matter. While it is his preferred position, Arsenal will certainly want to continue to groom and grow the confidence and quality of Nicolas Pepe. After all, you don’t break the bank and spend £72m on a player, spending well over what many in football valued him at, in order to impede his growth. What this likely means, is that Willian’s time on the right wing will be limited to when Pepe needs a break, or in specific tactical situations that Arteta believes to fit Willian’s game.
The only alternative would be Willian on the right wing while Pepe slides to the left or central. It’s not impossible, but the tactics get a bit interesting at that point. It’s not a clear and obvious outcome of this situation, so we can address that if it’s something we start to see in action.
Does this suggest Nelson will be loaned out? Very possible. If Arsenal add a few other pieces to their midfield during this window, Nelson may struggle to get time over Pepe and Willian, at which point a loan could allow him to get regular match minutes. It’s not my preferred outcome for Reiss Nelson as that feels like it would lead to his eventual sale, but it’s hard to argue with him needing more match time.
With the right wing looking a bit full, Willian may be deployed on the left wing, but it’s far from his regular spot during his time with Chelsea. This year, the most productive of his career in terms of goals and assists, Willian made 5 appearances on the left wing resulting in 1 goal and 0 assists. Putting Willian in contention on the left wing makes that role even more congested than the right wing.
With Aubameyang having a complete hold on that role and being backed up by promising youngsters Saka and Martinelli, it feels dangerous to toss a 4th player into the mix. The outcome that would make this possible is the decision to move Aubameyang into a central striker role and sell/swap Lacazette. This would clear a path for Martinelli, Saka, and Willian to compete for a starting role or rotate at times on that left wing. If that is the case, I would still prefer to see one of the two younger players getting the call while moving Willian into a more central role. That central role? The central attacking midfielder of a 4-2-3-1 or a the right central midfielder of a 4-3-3.
The final position that Willian offers, and the one I believe most likely for him to play in the red and white, is that central attacking midfield role. Historically, these have been his second most prolific positions. This year, he made 12 appearances as a center or right attacking midfielder, earning himself 4 goals and 3 assists, and it is a role that Arsenal are in desperate need of filling.
It is well known that Arteta is interested in playing a 4-back system that allows for as many creative, attacking players he can fit on the pitch, and Willian would offer that and experience to the young side. If Arteta looks to deploy him as the right-sided central midfielder, he could comfortably offer combination play with Pepe in the form of tight-spaced technical tiki-taka or simply on the overlap that allows Pepe to come central where it was evident he was more dangerous.
This year, Pepe’s contributions often came from moments of brilliance created by himself or his own dribbling, but he clearly lacked someone to combine with and help create shots for him to put his finishing on display. Willian could be that person with his comfort on the right wing. Unlike Mesut Ozil, who is not comfortable on the wing, taking people on, and offers the same left foot that Pepe offers making defending the pair easier, Willian offers someone with a lot of dribbling quality and experience on the wing to get to the endline and create. It’s an interesting combination and one I would be keen to used to great effect.
What may be Willian’s greatest asset is his versatility. He is capable of slotting himself into multiple positions at a moments notice and still being able to play at a relatively high level. It’s a quality that can’t be overlooked and one that could be crucial to his involvement in his Arsenal project. Some of the players that are most exciting for Arsenal are those that can be effective in multiple spots. Think Bukayo Saka who played just about everywhere this year, Martinelli who has been good on the wing but darn right effective down the middle in cup matches, or Ainsley Maitland-Niles who may be sold soon, but gained affection for his ability to play right back, right wingback, left wing back, and a little defensive midfield.
Being a Swiss Army man in his Arsenal side is never a bad thing. In fact, at the age of 32, it could be the key to extending the time in which Willian’s effectiveness exists. My reservations around Willian’s purchase lies within what he has to offer in 18 months, not what he offers on day 1. On day 1 he can fit in somewhere and clearly still has quality in the tank. Does he have the ability to bring that quality for 40+ appearances next year? To be seen. And if he doesn’t? Was Arsenal saddling themselves with another aging player they may find difficult to sell worth the first 12 months? That will be a question many will have hoped Arsenal’s staff have already asked themselves.
In the meantime, once the money is spent on Willian, the debate is subsided and I will welcome him with open arms. I don’t have any desire to see the player fail within the club just have a moment of, “told ya so,” and neither should others. I wish him the best, and seeing him in our midfield could be the key to creating more chances for Pepe to be dangerous and Aubameyang to convert half chances. I await the formal announcement soon!