Football Features

Willian is going to be way more important to Arsenal than some people thought

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 11:15, 14 September 2020

When Willian signed for Arsenal after a brief transfer saga, many were left a bit nonplussed.

Even the usual joy of pinching a player from your rivals couldn’t comfort some Gunners as it was clear Chelsea were happy to let Willian leave and have indeed replaced him with younger, more exciting players.

That’s the thing, though. The players may be more exciting, but are they better in the here and now? Arsenal signed Willian because he is ready to rock and roll from day one. He doesn’t need a season or so to find true top-level consistency and rhythm in the same way that Bukayo Saka and certainly Nicolas Pépé do. He’s good already, a proven Premier League stud.

“He has very special qualities. He has experience in this league,” said Arteta on Friday, adding praise for his physical hardiness: “he’s a player that doesn’t miss football matches. Last season at Chelsea you could see the amount of games he played.”

Against Fulham we saw an almost perfect example of just how potent a top-tier creative winger can be in Mikel Arteta’s system at Arsenal. The Brazilian was the man who turned the Gunners’ endless dominance of the match into actual dominance on the scoresheet.

Arsenal’s first goal came because Willian took up a superb position in the middle of the pitch and fought hard to get a shot off after a defensive mistake. It didn’t go down as an assist, but his shot did lead to Alexandre Lacazette’s opener.

Arsenal’s second goal came because Willian bent a beautiful corner into the box that Gabriel rose to head home.

Arsenal’s third goal came because Willian lasered a beautiful cross-field pass through the air (one of many he made that afternoon) to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in space, and the Arsenal skipper smashed the ball home.

One game, two assists, three chances created. The display against Fulham was a perfect case study of just why Arteta pushed for Willian even though he has a plethora of young wingers to call on.

Since the start of 2016/17, only two players have created more chances (including set-pieces) in the Premier League than Willian’s 271. He is among the most prolific for passes that lead to shots and that is something Arsenal need a player to regularly produce with their magical misfit maestro Mesut Ozil seemingly incompatible with Arteta’s vision for the Gunners.

In fact, with their minutes-played totals being almost identical (8,198 vs. 8,200), Willian’s 271 chances created and 31 big chances created are both superior to Ozil’s 267 and 26. Also worth noting is that no Premier League forward won possession more times than Willian last season, in terms of both total (185) and per90 (6.4, excluding those who played fewer than 700 minutes) figures.

So Willian can offer something akin to Ozil’s production but does so with the added pace, energy and defensive work-rate that comes from being a winger rather than a sometimes-languid No.10. Willian fits where Ozil doesn’t, which makes him so useful for Mikel Arteta as he tries to get Arsenal back into the Champions League.

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“With all the conversations I had with him, the thing that stands out is his ambition and his willingness to be the man who can drive this club forward and be a big part of it,” Arteta said of his Brazilian winger toward the end of last week.

Should Willian stay fit and consistent, what seemed a short-sighted purchase could well become a cornerstone of Arteta’s Arsenal. If he helps them make the top four, the club suddenly finds itself in a better financial position and more attractive to further signings down the line.

And from an individual perspective, keep an eye out for Willian to top the assist charts this season (he’s set the early pace with two!). Given the high-powered nature of the Gunners’ attack featuring Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, having a player like him loading the bullets could end up being incredibly profitable for both team and player.