The year 2013 saw Willian make his move to Chelsea from Shakhtar Donetsk. Since then he has proved himself to be one of the most consistent players in the EPL and has been a key figure for Chelsea in winning multiple amounts of silverware. Since his arrival, he has won two Premier League titles under two different managers. He has also won the Europa League, the FA Cup and the League Cup. Besides the Champions League itself, Willian has won everything that he could have at Chelsea. His pace, ability to shoot and consistency in the big games have meant he has been one of Chelsea’s best players over the past 10 years. Every manager that Chelsea have had, and there have been a fair few, have always regarded Willian as a key player in the squad and a player that can lead the team due to his experience. He’s scored 37 goals and got 33 assists since his arrival, which may not seem as high as imagined, however, his contribution has been present for all to see. Chelsea have made excellent signings to make up for this loss, however, his experience and big-game presence is something Chelsea will miss.
The challenge that Willian looks to be taking is moving to North London to join Arsenal and to be a vital member of Mikel Arteta’s rebuild of the Gunners. On paper, it seems slightly strange that Willian is moving to Arsenal as they already have several wider players including Nicolas Pépé and Bukayo Saka. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can also play out wide, however, the signing of Willian will allow them to have extreme flexibility when they look to attack. As will be discussed later, Willian has played through different play styles with various managers which will provide Arsenal with a variation in attacking play. Arteta is looking to add to his squad and add more experience to what is a very young and inexperienced Arsenal team. The likes of Willian and Aubameyang will be the experienced players that can lead this Arsenal team forward and help the youngsters move forward. There is no doubt that Willian will be a good signing for Arsenal and one that can help move them forward in the right direction.
This tactical analysis will look at the ways that Willian will benefit this Arsenal team and the scout report will also focus on how the current Arsenal setup will suit him and the qualities he possesses. The tactics of Arsenal will also be discussed during this analysis and the ways they could potentially make tweaks to ensure Willian produces the same level of performance as he did for many years at Stamford Bridge.
Pushing to the right
Throughout the majority of his time at Chelsea, Willian played as a right-sided winger. Of course, there were times where he would play on the left or through the middle, however, his main position for Chelsea was a right-sided winger. Willian’s style as a winger could be seen as very traditional. He is right-footed, and he always looked to stay towards the right side not only to create space for the other attacking midfielders but to create space for himself to shoot on goal. It is noticeable that Willian always stays wide and the left-winger, whoever that may be on the day, will push inwards. This is mainly because César Azpilicueta, who is Chelsea’s first-choice right-back, is not as strong in getting forward on the overlap compared to the options Chelsea have at left-back. However, at Arsenal, they have two excellent young full-backs in Héctor Bellerin and Kieran Tierney who both enjoy overlapping. Willian, therefore, may have to adapt to this to allow them to overlap, depending on what side he plays.
Willian is one of the best right-footed right-wingers in the world and his lack of a left foot is made up for when he shoots with his right. During his time at Chelsea, he scored 33 goals with his right foot and only three with his left. This shows that when he is on that right-sided winger position, he enjoys shooting the ball across goal and scoring. This is an aspect of his game that has always been there and one that he could add to the Arsenal squad. By him pushing wide to the right side, it could allow the likes of Aubameyang to find more space in the central areas which could increase the number of goals Arsenal manage to score. Arsenal has very good technical attackers who find spaces very well. Willian’s ability to create such spaces will be important for these attacking players.
Below is an example of this from Chelsea’s win at Burnley earlier in the season. We can see how Willian pushes wide to the right side which allows other attacking players to make movements into the inside right space. This attack is slightly unorganised, however, under Arteta Arsenal have a real systematic approach when going forward which will mean players are going to be found in spaces at a much higher rate.
Looking at what Willian can offer is a good start for this analysis point, however, we should also consider what Arsenal currently operate within the wider areas. Willian, as mentioned, is a right-sided winger and Arsenal spent big money on Pépé. Pépé is an extremely bright talent who has the potential to be world-class and the signing of Willian will help him. Pépé is left-footed and plays on the right which means he is always looking to cut in on his left and make runs more inside and into the box as opposed to sticking wide like Willian. This highlights that having both Pépé and Willian will allow Arsenal a completely different style of attack depending on the opponent. The left side of Arsenal’s attack sees them usually operate with the likes of Saka and Aubameyang depending on who they are playing. With Willian coming into the squad, it could be the case that Willian could play on the left with Pepe on the right with Aubameyang through the middle. They could also play one of Willian or Pépé on the right with the other coming on later in the game. The point is, Arsenal will have options in attack with Willian coming in, and he is completely different from what they have currently.
Pépé, as mentioned loves the run on the inside. However, one of his main problems this season is that he has been far too predictable in his play and defenders have been able to read him quickly and deny him spaces on the inside. Willian, on the other hand, is explosive and it’s hard to know what his next move is. As mentioned, he loves to stay wide and allow others to come to the inside, however, he can mix it up. The point of highlighting this is to show that by signing Willian, Arsenal now has a variety of attacking options with different strengths.
All of the teams’ Arsenal are trying to catch have these options. Manchester City have Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling that could all play on the right-wing if need be. Manchester United have both Mason Greenwood, Daniel James and Juan Mata to choose from who are all completely different styles of players. Tottenham Hotspur has the likes of Lucas Moura, Steven Bergwijn and Son Heung-Min to chose from in the wide areas. The point is that the top teams have options in attacking areas which helps them during injuries, etc.
Below is an example of the runs that Pépé enjoys making. We can see it is very inverted and on the inside. Notice the comparison between the picture containing Willian and this one of Pépé. The difference is night and day and highlights the variation of attacking options that Arteta can choose from by signing Willian.
As has been discussed, Willian has an excellent footballing education. At Chelsea, Willian has played under the likes of José Mourinho, Guus Hiddink, Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri. These are top coaches, and in the case of Mourinho and Conte, they are both serial winners. Another similarity between Mourinho and Conte is that they are both managers that build their teams on the counter-attacking play. When they were both in charge at Chelsea, they both played excellent counter-attacking football which saw them win two league titles with Willian being critical in both. The 2014/15 season under Mourinho saw Willian score two goals and three assists. This may not seem very high, however, his role during the season was vital. The 16/17 season under Conte saw him get eight goals and two assists. What these statistics show is that Willian is excellent in the role of counter-attacking from the right side and could add this dimension to Arsenal’s attack which they are looking to improve.
Willian from the right side of the counter-attack is excellent at bringing the ball forward with the ball at his feet and moving his team up the pitch. He is often supported by the striker and left-sided winger which allows him to play them through or receive it in behind the defensive line. This has also been the case whenever Chelsea are on the counter-attack, irrespective of the manager. His pace skill and ability to find a pass, which will be discussed later all make him perfectly suited for a team looking to counter-attack. When Arsenal look to go away to the better teams of the division, having a player like Willian could be vital.
Below is an example of Willian against Arsenal playing for Chelsea in their 2-1 victory at the Emirates earlier in the season. We can see Willian on the break with the two other Chelsea attackers which results in a Tammy Abraham goal. Notice Willian’s movement in a straight line towards the goal from the right side. As will be discussed, Willian has a great pass which allows him to be effective in these situations. Arsenal needs a variation and an outlet when it comes to counter-attacking against the better teams and Willian is perfect for this.
Arsenal under Mikel Arteta in the majority of games that they have played under the Spaniard is not a team that counter-attack very often. Arsenal enjoys possession and looking to find spaces for the attacking players to be found. However, in the bigger games, we have seen them adopt a more defensive and counter-attacking approach. The signing of Willian could, therefore, be an extremely smart signing for when Arsenal look to play in the big games. The game that comes to mind most recently is their 2-0 victory over Chelsea in the FA Cup final. When they didn’t have the ball they kept an extremely compact shape and looked to get forward on the counter-attack. They started with a front three of Pépé, Alexandre Lacazette and Aubameyang who started wide. These three were extremely effective on the break and provided Chelsea with lots of problems. When thinking about the signing of Willian, it is clear that he could fit very well into this system of counter-attacking. A front three of Willian, Aubameyang and Pépé away at Old Trafford, Anfield, The Etihad, Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane would give these teams a defensive problem and they would be cautious of these three on the counter-attack. This is not to say the likes of Lacazette can’t get into the team, however, the front three just mentioned is much more effective in counter-attacking situations.
Willian’s record of being successful in counter-attacking teams coupled with a mentality shift needed from Arsenal when they play away from home seems to match nicely. The last time Arsenal won an away game against a ‘traditional’ top-six team (Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs) was back in 2015. Willian’s big game mentality and his clear and obvious abilities on the counter-attack gives Arsenal good options going into these sorts of games.
Below is an example of Arsenal looking to counter-attack from their 2-0 victory against Chelsea in the Fa Cup final. We can see Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pépé all moving forward on the counter-attack. They are very close together which allows them to play the ball amongst each other. The ball eventually reaches Aubameyang who scores the winner. This shows the approach that they are looking to have in the bigger games and with Willian’s arrival into the team this could be enhanced and used as a tactical usage in the bigger games and when Arsenal need to counter-attack.
Balls in behind
When we think of Willian, we never think of his passing ability. It has to be said that the Brazilian has an excellent pass and in particular is very good at finding the pass in behind the defensive line. Willian leads the Chelsea ranking in terms of assists with seven. He has also played five key through balls which highlights his ability and consistency to play balls in behind the defensive line. This, as mentioned, is an aspect of Willian’s game that does not make the headlines very often. Credit must also be given to Frank Lampard in this regard as he has brought about a more creative style to Chelsea’s game. When it comes to Arsenal, Pépé ranked highest with six. This means that Willian got more assists than any Arsenal player which highlights why signing him may be beneficial in this sense. By bringing Willian into the team, they would, therefore, have a much more creative individual in their team which would benefit them in many ways, including against teams who like to operate with the low-block.
Below is an example of the type of pass Willian likes to play seen in this game against Crystal Palace. We can see Olivier Giroud making an excellent run in behind which is found very well by Willian. This sort of run is trademark for Aubameyang, which will be discussed, and Arsenal could benefit from having such a player in the team.
As mentioned, the balls in behind to run onto is what Aubameyang feeds off and where he scores the majority of his goals. This requires creative players to help find him in these areas and Willian could very much help this by joining the Arsenal frontline. This is not to suggest that Pépé is not creative, however, adding more assists and through passes to feed Aubameyang is what Arsenal need to do in order to be successful going forward. Willian would love to have the likes of Aubameyang running on to the through passes, as was shown earlier. Having Pépé and Willian on either flank could be very dangerous for opposition in terms of a creative threat. Of course there are other players in the squad that could help in this regard, the likes of Saka and other attacking players Arsenal have are of a good enough quality to come in and provide creativity in attacking areas. Willian will only add to this and give Arsenal an extra dimension going forward.
Below is an example of this from the 1-1 away draw at Old Trafford against Manchester United. We can see Saka playing in Aubameyang through on goal who scores and makes it 1-1. This sort of run is trademark and Willian could benefit from this massively. Having someone who makes these sorts of runs is a dream for a winger like Willian who has the ability to find a pass in behind to find the run. Arsenal will be looking to use this combination as much as possible when they attack.
To conclude, it is clear to see that Willian will very much improve Arsenal as a team and has a lot to offer to the rebuild they are currently going through. Willian coming in will add a lot of flexibility to their attack and allow them to play with different systems. He could play on either flank which allow other players to flourish and provide a balance when Arsenal look to attack through the wingers. The most important aspect of Willian signing is the impact it could have on the way Arsenal are able to play. The younger players such as Saka will look at Willian as an example and it will provide attacking options beyond what Arsenal currently have. Chelsea seemed to have moved on from Willian and made some good younger