Willian has joined Arsenal.
The Brazilian had already left former club Chelsea, announcing via Twitter that “the time has come to move on.” Naturally this has led to much speculation over his future club. He had been linked to Barcelona last summer, but a change in management cooled that speculation. And so a cross-town switch to Arsenal was confirmed on Friday morning, with Willian’s agent Kia Joorabchian thought to have played a big role in the deal.
🆕 New club. New colours. New beginnings.
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) August 14, 2020
But this has left plenty of people scratching their heads. Where exactly does Willian fit into the Arsenal side? The answer is clear.
Arsenal are a side desperately short of consistent, reliable dribblers. Nicolas Pépé is prolific carrying the ball, but he is Arsenal’s only genuine option to do this. Bukayo Saka and Reiss Nelson obviously have talent, but they are young and you wouldn’t want to burden them with carrying the dribbling load, along with Pépé.
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The way Mikel Arteta plays football, or rather wants to play football, necessitates dribblers out wide. The passing football Pep Guardiola instilled at Man City and that Arteta brought to Arsenal has – as key components – wingers that can hold their width and excel in 1v1 situations. These players stretches defences out as they try to cover, and that in turn creates spaces through the middle. Good, dribbling wingers are fundamental to the success of any team that wants to play passing, possession-based football.
So this is where Willian fits in: on the wings.
The Brazilian is an accomplished dribbler; Pépé (72) is the only Arsenal man to complete more dribbles than him (65) in 2019/20. And if you go further back, since the start of 2016/17 Willian is 12th overall in completed dribbles with 223, and with the exception of Michail Antonio (less), Adama Traoré (much less), Eden Hazard and Paul Pogba (slightly more) everyone above him in the list has played at least 1,000 more minutes, often over 2,000 more.
Willian is also an elite chance creator. Since the start of 2016/17, the Brazilian has created 268 Premier League chances, enough to see him rank fourth among players during that time. Having an elite playmaker out wide will be a huge boon to the Gunners, it will ease the burden on Pépé and allow Arteta to rotate and mix-up his team selections.
Right now Arteta pretty much has to play the same front three if he wants success, but with the arrival of Willian then Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could actually get games up-front (Arsenal Twitter, rejoice!) as Willian and Pépé play wide. And having that kind of genuine width would allow Arteta to switch to a 4-3-3 shape which would allow for greater midfield control of games. Alternatively, Pépé and Willian could simply alternate who plays on the right with Aubameyang on the left and Alexandre Lacazette up-front.
Or, shock-horror, Aubameyang could even leave. The striker has been linked with a move away and has yet to sign a new contract. It’s not something Arsenal fans want to countenance, but if he did leave then Willian would instantly slot into his spot on the left and become the side’s chief creative force, supplying the likes of Lacazette or even Pépé who has shown he is capable of great goalscoring before.
Without Willian, a free transfer, Arsenal would have to spend big to try and mitigate the loss of Aubameyang and that would hamper the rest of the deals they need to do. With Willian? It’s taken care of and that money can go elsewhere (say it with me now: Thomas Partey).
And if Auba stays, the pair could work together to thrive throughout what will surely be a punishingly long season with three cups to go along with the Premier League and the money can still go elsewhere.
So what are Arsenal buying? A dribbling chance-creation machine who can play on the right or on the left. That mix alone is extremely potent and then you add in Willian’s leadership and knowledge of what it takes to win a title, then it’s obvious to see why the Gunners have made this move.
The Brazilian has won two Premier League titles in the last five years, which is as many as Arsenal have in the last 20. He’s a proven winner, and Arsenal need more of those if they are to truly establish themselves as a Premier League force again.