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20/21 First Team General

The Willian Conundrum

For years, Arsenal’s Achilles’ heel has been their poor defensive record. Back in the days of Arsène Wenger, Arsenal used to blow teams away with a stunning attack that was the envy of world football, but their defence was always the weak spot; no matter who Arsenal were playing, you always got the feeling that Arsenal could be undone by a moment of madness or a temporary lapse in concentration that would lead the other team to grab a not entirely deserved goal.

Under Mikel Arteta, it seems as though Arsenal have reversed the trend. While Arsenal are perhaps not channelling the sort of energy that Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn had when they were dubbed “The Famous Back Four”, there is still a defensive resilience about the team that has not been seen for a while.

Héctor Bellerín looks to have stepped up to the plate, Kieran Tierney is showing signs of being one of the club’s best recruits in years, David Luiz adds experience and boasts a repertoire of long-range passes that few can hope to best, while summer addition Gabriel Magalhães, signed for £27m in the summer, looks to be one of the best signings of the season in the Premier League.

Willian in top form at former club, Chelsea.

Upfront, Arsenal tell a different tale. In the Premier League, Arsenal have the 6th worst return in goals, with a meagre nine goals in eight matches. Many things can be pointed to as the problem, whether it be the continued exile of Mesut Özil, the usual decline in quality after signing a new contract that has cursed Arsenal for many years with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the continued misfirings of Alexandre Lacazette or the constant benching of record-signing Nicolas Pépé, it seems as though Arsenal have no shortage of reasons for their poor form.

It’s unfair to apportion blame entirely to one person, especially when the entire team is struggling to find form at the moment, but it does seem that a lot of Arsenal’s problems are coming from their right-hand side, a side that is usually occupied by new signing Willian.

Willian played at Chelsea for seven years and was, at one point, considered to be their best player, but as all Chelsea fans will tell you, the Brazilian’s form was erratic at best. One minute, he was dictating games with a steely resilience that showed why Chelsea were so desperate to sign him in the first place, the next, he’s disappeared, cropping up only to highlight an anonymous performance with yet another poor corner that fails to beat the first-man.

Willian was Arsenal’s first signing of a lively summer window. It had been known for several months that Arsenal had been keen on the Brazilian, given that Chelsea were uneasy about offering him the three-year deal that he so desired, it was no surprise that he had several suitors, with Barcelona and Arsenal both keen admirers.

The issue with the signing, for Arsenal fans, seemed to be stemming from the perceived approach to transfers that Arsenal had under, the now departed Raül Sanllehí. Under Sanllehí, Arsenal tended to favour a more contacts-driven approach to signings, rather than using data and analytics or scouting recommendations, an approach that led Head of Recruitment Sven Mislintat to serve his notice.

Willian in a pre-season run-out against Aston Villa.

Under Sanllehí, Arsenal signed players such as Denis Suárez (though this was spearheaded more by Unai Emery, than Sanllehí), David Luiz and Cédric Soares before moving for Willian. Luiz and Cédric in particular represented uninspiring purchases from Premier League teams grateful to see the back of them, but both players shared one thing in common, the super agent Kia Joorabchian.

Under Arsène Wenger, Arsenal famously refused to deal with super agents, as their cut-throat negotiation tactics, coupled with their inability to act outside of general self-interest, led Arsenal to look elsewhere, that all changed under Sanllehí.

While the COVID-19 pandemic rumbled on, it was no surprise that Willian would not be able to pose for the usual photoshoots that take place at Arsenal’s London Colney training base, but it was odd to see the new man having his official photoshoot, not at his own house, not the boardroom where he signed his new contract, not at the Emirates Stadium where social distancing can be better observed, but at his agent’s house.

The move is also exacerbated by Mikel Arteta’s reported insistence on signing the player. While Joorabchian’s involvement cannot be overstated in the move, it is also very telling just how much Arteta advocated it. The move makes sense on paper; it technically weakens a potential rival, gives depth in a position that Arsenal are lacking in, he has Premier League and European experience and has a good connection with central defender David Luiz.

While Joorabchian’s involvement at Arsenal is not relevant to Willian’s current run of form, it is perhaps one of the main reasons why Arsenal fans have yet to take to the Brazilian in the way they would with other players.

The Brazilian has not helped himself either. After a truly stunning debut, in which he registered three assists, the Brazilian winger has dropped off rather spectacularly, in a manner that eerily echoes Henrikh Mkhitaryan, whose form noticeably dropped off after a stunning home debut against Everton.

Willian impressed with a stunning debut against Fulham.

When signing Willian, it was well-known that Arteta preferred to play the player in a more central role, the role that is usually covered by Mesut Özil. As the Özil soap-opera rumbles on boringly in the background, Arsenal have lacked the creative spark that the German World Cup winner is usually able to provide. It was thought that Willian could fill that void by dropping into the central attacking position and provide the killer ball for Arsenal’s frightening attack.

This has not been the case, however. In recent weeks, Arsenal have moved away from the more conservative back 3-5-3 formation into a more resolute 4-3-3, which better accommodates Thomas Partey and the resurged Mohamed Elneny, however, a 4-3-3 negates the need for a central attacker in the traditional number ten sense. In this formation, the creative element will likely have to either create from deep (which better suits Dani Ceballos) or have to contribute defensively, which has never been one of Willian’s strong suits.

With this in mind, it is understandable why Willian is deployed out wide, rather than centrally. In a 4-3-3, the flanks tend to see more action. Whenever the classic Barcelona side of Pep Guardiola or the current system that Jürgen Klopp plays with Liverpool, the full-backs are deployed further up the field, giving the wingers the chance to attack more, which is what Arteta has looked to implement with Arsenal.

Nicolas Pépé has found it difficult to break into Mikel Artea’s plans in the Premier League.

While Nicolas Pépé has looked somewhat inconsistent, the Ivorian has shown on multiple occasions that he can work within that system and links up well with Héctor Bellerín when needed. Willian has so far struggled to do so. The issue facing both players is that Arsenal are often feeding Pépé or Willian when their back is to goal, which tends to feed the incentive for them to go backwards or to spend too long on the ball.

Pépé’s form has been erratic so far this season, however, the former Lille winger has already notched three goals in all competitions and two assists, whereas Willian is yet to deliver any goal contributions aside from his opening game. There is already an air of inevitability about Arsenal’s right-hand flank, that if the ball is fed down that side, Arsenal are unlikely to score.

Arsenal’s left-hand side has always been their strongest, even in the days of Arsène Wenger. Back when Ashley Cole and Robert Pirès were terrorising defences, Arsenal still had strength on the right with Lauren and Freddie Ljungberg; later, Arsenal decided to deploy Nacho Monreal and Alexis Sánchez on the left, with Theo Walcott and Héctor Bellerín covering the right; under Unai Emery, Arsenal tended to lean more on their left-hand side as well, with Aubameyang usually given the creative license to roam inwards, Arsenal tended to use either Monreal or Sead Kolašinac to create the majority of their attacks, especially when Mesut Özil was not playing.

The same can be said of Mikel Arteta with Kieran Tierney and Aubameyang providing most of the threat in the attack, but Bukayo Saka is often able to drift out wide as well, meaning Arsenal tend to shift to a fluid 4-4-2 in attack, which often leaves the right-side isolated, as Arsenal tend to usurp the right in favour of a move left-sided attacking approach.

It should come as no surprise to see that Willian has only completed a full 90 minutes just once this season, in the side’s home win over Sheffield United, and his removal from the pitch is often seen as a necessary move by Arteta.

Reiss Nelson is still patiently waiting to play in the Premier League this season.

Pépé features most commonly for Arsenal in the UEFA Europa League on a Thursday night, with Willian usually joining or replacing him later on, but it is starting to look more and more like Pépé should be starting in Arsenal’s Saturday/Sunday/Monday Premier League matches, and Willian the Thursday nights.

It’s not just Pépé who can potentially challenge for a starting spot however, there are plenty of Hale End graduates looking for an in. The aforementioned Bukayo Saka is enjoying a rich vein of form in the middle of the park, but given Arsenal’s penchant for left-footed players, he could be very at home on the right, especially given how well he played there last season in Arsenal’s 1-1 draw with Leicester City.

The most likely choice is Reiss Nelson. Though the youngster has enjoyed more success on the left than the right, he has shown that he can play there and his recent performances in both the League Cup and the Europa League have shown that he has sought to put his poor form from past season behind him and make a stake in the Arsenal lineup. Emile Smith-Rowe is currently injured, but the youngster has also shown how useful he can be on the flanks as well.

It remains to be seen if Willian will reach the heights he hit at Chelsea or whether he can still fit into Arteta’s plan and system, but on the current evidence, it’s looking like a gamble that is not paying off.

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