In the 65th minute, Arteta used his second substitution to put an end to what had been a dreadful day. Willian came running off the field with a scowl on his face. One that had been there from the very first whistle, and has been there since his Premier League debut against Fulham.
Life with Arsenal started off fantastically, but has gone less than smoothly since for the 32-year-old since. His 3-year move to north London was a contentious one, and recent performances will have convinced many the argument is over.
Willian was supposed to offer creativity, chance creation, and agile dribbling. At the very least, technical security. Lately, his performances have been like that of a defeated man. Aston Villa was one of the worst, made worse by the result itself. Willian playing a significant role in those struggles.
He made a complete hash of his pass back, leading to an Aston Villa break; his attempted block of a proceeding pass ended up being a lovely wall-pass to see Barkley through; and his haphazard defending ends with a Villa goal and his hands being thrown into the air. Maybe the only worse aspect than Willian’s involvement on the play is Rob Holding’s 1v.1 defending on Barkley….what is he doing? The whole play is a complete mess and Arsenal are down 1-0, 25 minutes in.
It wasn’t the only moments of embarrassment for Willian that day. Add two wild shots of incredibly poor technical ability to the tally, as well. I may be able to forgive him for the first effort. The ball is crossed with a good amount of pace and he tries to take it on the half-volley, but you’d like to see someone of his technical ability do a bit better with it then sending it into row Z. Could he have settled it and made a move to put the defender off? Maybe, but his shot in the second half, significantly worse.
A ball crossed in from the right, not completely dealt with by Villa’s defender, is chested down by Willian next to the penalty spot, and swung at like a wild-man. An absolute lash with his left foot sees the shot basically out for a thrown-in. A summarizing moment of his struggles, no doubt.
In his 60+ minutes, Willian completed just 28 passes.
Just 6 of them went forward.
The rest of his passes were backwards. Like Arsenal’s performance. Regressive, passive, undaring, and predictable. It should be the end of Willian’s time on Arsenal’s right wing. It should be the type of performance that mandates he earn his spot back when the team returns from the international break. It needs to be the type of result that sends the clear message to Arteta that Nicolas Pepe should be getting the nod for starts within the Premier League.
Arsenal have two right wing players in Willian and Pepe that are underperforming. Willian was supposed to be the stable veteran, Pepe the star prospect that offered flair and finish who simply needs a bit of refining.
Pepe’s situation may still be true. This year, his performances have been far from impressive. His only start in the Premier League came against Manchester City. Otherwise, he has been reduced to cup matches and substitution appearances. But in a team that is lacking any form of end product, the fact that Pepe is offering that adds more value than the performance itself.
In 12 appearances (6 starts) Pepe has 5 G/A (3 goals, 2 assists), 21 shots, and over 800 yards of progressive ball carrying. With a .24xG per 90 minutes, Pepe is the 4th highest forward on the team behind Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Nketiah — he has more goal involvements than both central forwards and is tied with Auba.
Within moments of coming on against Aston Villa, he was making a difference. It wasn’t the level of difference that could salvage that diabolical of a performance, but within a minute of being in we saw Pepe flash a cross into the box causing more danger than Willian had, and later had a curling show just wide of the post.
And look, I am not saying xG reins supreme as the most important stat, but when Pepe spends a third of the time in the match against Villa as Willian, and is producing a higher total, it’s worth investigating.
5 goals and assists in 11 games is nothing for Arsenal to turn their nose up at. He’s averaging an involvement in every other appearance. When you break down his 819 minutes, you’re actually only looking at 9 complete matches which means he is involved in a goal at a .54 rate.
It’s this type of production that Arsenal simply cannot overlook at the moment. Pepe’s performances can be frustrating. They can leave you wanting more. The price tag on his head will never be justifiable. But as we saw against Dundalk, he can produce something in a flash. He can finish, he can make a move, and he can deliver a ball… just sometimes not on corners.
Arsenal have some real struggles on the right wing when it comes to their top two men. Maybe Reiss Nelson does deserve a serious look in, but if Pepe isn’t even getting the nod and Willock’s performances in the Europa League aren’t warranting a spot in the 18-man selection, it’s hard to imagine Reiss’ will any time soon.
Willian is struggling. He is one of the poorest on the pitch consistently. And I don’t say this type of statement often, but he doesn’t deserve to be given the minutes he is given. It’s a major two weeks for Arsenal’s staff and Pepe will be on international duty which may mean Willian gets another shot, sadly, when things return. But Pepe should be the starter. He should getting the opportunity to make a difference in the Premier League. And he should be having some aspect of the attack catered to his success by allowing him to go central.
His performance may be lacking consistency, but his ability to produce, at this point, papers over the cracks.