After failing to renew his contract with Chelsea, Willian has signed for Arsenal. Despite being a free agent, the Brazilian’s contract reportedly makes him the club’s second-highest earner and contains loyalty payments, bonuses, and a sizable signing-on fee that could see the Gunners pay £35 million for his acquisition.
With Arsenal’s well publicised financial issues and the squad having more pressing areas of concern, perhaps Willian will be more of a curse than a blessing for Mikel Arteta. However, if Arsenal have the capacity to purchase the 32-year-old in addition to, rather than instead of, other players, he could be a valuable asset for the team in the upcoming season.
During his time at Chelsea, Willian usually played as a right-winger in a 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, or 3-4-3. At Arsenal, he will likely compete for the same berth with club-record signing Nicolas Pepe. Despite having a mixed inaugural season in English football, Pepe is still an exciting prospect who could still become an excellent player. Even so, Willian gives Arteta a different type of player profile on the right-wing.
The table above, which uses data from Understat, shows Pepe’s and Willian’s statistical output in the league whilst playing as a right-winger. The metrics of xGc and xGBuildup, devised initially by Statsbomb, are useful ways to measure a players’ creative influence and their role in constructing attacks for their team.
The metric of expected goal-chains (xGc) is determined by finding all the possessions each player is involved in, finding all the shots within those possessions, summing their xG, and assigning that sum to each player regardless of whether they took the shot or not. This allows players who are involved in the build-up to an attempt at goal but don’t take the shot to receive credit for their contribution. Expected goal build-up (xGBuildup) is the same metric but excludes shots and key passes from the possession chains, allowing one to focus solely on the involvement of a player in the build-up to attacks.
When analyzing these and other statistics, it becomes clear that Willian offers more than Pepe creatively. Even during Pepe’s sensational season for Lille during the 18/19 campaign, he posed more of a goal-threat but contributed less to shot-creating actions and build-up than his Brazilian counterpart. This makes sense given their respective playing styles.
Pepe is an explosive, unpredictable winger who favours cutting inside onto his stronger left foot and beating players with tricks, skill, and sudden changes of pace. Willian is more of a traditional winger, pulling wide to hold the width and feed attackers with crosses or loitering in the right-half space to play slide through-passes in behind the opposition defence.
This differing playing style would suit Arsenal well. Throughout both Unai Emery and now Mikel Arteta’s reign, the FA Cup holders have struggled at unlocking deep-defensive blocks. In the absence of Mesut Ozil, they lack a natural playmaker, and their midfield and attacking lines often seem disjointed.
Willian’s compared to Arsenal players during the 2019-20 Premier League season:
⬢ 1st – chances created
⬢ 1st – Big Chances created
⬢ 1st – penalty area entries
⬡ 2nd – take-ons completed
⬡ 2nd – shots on target
⬡ 2nd – touches in the opp. box
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 14, 2020
Willian could give Arsenal the sort of creativity they have been lacking from a wider position, moving inside in the half-space to combine with Hector Bellerin on the overlap and supplying the likes of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang with the sort of service they thrive on. He can also do a better job of stretching the opposition defence by hugging the touchline, which could aid Bellerin defensively as he wouldn’t have to push up as much. Arsenal still probably need another pure playmaker, but Willian could enhance the team’s creative output.
Willian is also recognised as one of the best defensive forwards in the game. Under the auspices of Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, the former Chelsea man became accustomed to playing in primarily counter-attacking teams that relied on defensive solidity. Willian is extremely intelligent and positionally disciplined without the ball, ably assisting his fullback in holding down the right-hand side.
While Arteta seems to favour a more possession-based approach, Arsenal defended very deep and counter-attacked effectively in their wins over Liverpool and Manchester City. Add into that the fact that the Gunners have lost more points from winning positions than any other Premier League side since Arteta’s arrival, and Willian’s defensive quality becomes all the more important.
At 32, Willian also brings a degree of experience that could be helpful in the development of Arsenal’s exciting wide players such as Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson, and Pepe. He can provide Arteta with a dependable winger for a few seasons and leave the club just as many of the side’s more talented players will be ready for regular first-team minutes.
Arsenal still have a long way to go, both in their off-pitch structure and on-pitch performance. Willian may not resolve a pressing need in Arsenal’s squad, but he’s a nice option for Arteta to have and – shocking financial sacrifices aside – a smart signing for the club.