Willian has divided opinion throughout his seven years at Chelsea. Bursting on the scene like a Chinese firecracker with a glorious curling finish at Carrow Road, his first season in English football was marked by all too infrequent moments of magic. At his very best he showcased sublime technique and energy. But like his Brazilian counterpart Oscar, consistency alluded him. Willian to this day, however, holds his worth in Chelsea folklore. He is a magnanimous staple of hard work and loyalty in a period of The Blues history where player power has defined the narrative of almost every manager to step through the doors at Stamford Bridge. With Willian’s contract seemingly coming to an end this summer, there seems no better time to reevaluate the legacy he’ll leave behind.
The departure of Eden Hazard to Real Madrid left a void in Chelsea’s front line that very few could fill. It wasn’t merely the goals or the slaloming runs from deep it was a culture of superiority that followed Hazard every time he stepped out on to the pitch. Willian was a player himself capable of lifting Chelsea out of adversity ultimately, but he was never going to replace Hazard’s influence. This should not be to slight the Brazilian’s impact this season. Granted, his output in front of goal rarely stands up to inspection, but that is exactly where fans and pundits miss the point. Burdened by the prolificacy of Hazard and Pedro, it again all comes down to perspective. Now, this is not to say Hazard and Willian are alike in the scale of their impact on the club. But recast Willian’s position within a tactical setup, and you’ll find he is not akin to the expectations of a traditional winger. These baseless comparisons neglect the fluidity of a player’s role within the confines of the pitch.
This season Willian has ranked first for key passes both in the Champions League (19) and the Premier League (51) for Chelsea this season. A frustrating player? Perhaps. But misunderstood? Most definitely. Willian is primarily tasked with dropping off to help with deep ball progression and recovering possession. His xGBuildup90 of 0.35 ranks second only to Mateo Kovacic, coupled with an xGChain90 of 0.64. This shows the Brazilian is picking the ball up in dangerous positions, often between the lines, before drifting past players and progressing the ball into the feet of more advanced runners. Willian is often judged as the final line of attack, responsible for picking up positions in and around the 18-yard box. The reality, however, could not be more different.
Take Chelsea’s victory over Crystal Palace earlier in the season, a game in which Christian Pulisic and Willian both enjoyed starring roles. Pulisic started on the left-hand side and Willian on the right. Against Palace, Pulisic could be seen making runs into the area, whilst Willian drove with the ball from deep. Both are defined broadly as a winger, but their starting positions and responsibilities on and off the ball are in stark contrast. Take this image, for example: Willian is seen waiting in the centre circle to collect Tammy Abraham’s knockdown whilst Pulisic and Mason Mount are positioned as the two most advanced options. The result of this move? Willian drives into the space drawing players towards him before offloading to Pulisic who has a free run on goal. Pulisic is advanced whilst Willian is withdrawn, yet both play critical roles in fashioning a shooting opportunity.
As well as dropping deep, Willian also displays a tendency to pick up space on the edge of the area, either for a shot or a pass – take your pick between his assist against Palace or his goal against Everton, which was perhaps his last in a Chelsea shirt. Again, Willian is clearly under instructions not to make the sort of darting runs in behind that bought Pulisic his goal against Palace. Yet his impact is clear to see. There is a variety to his play that is underpinned by a need to draw the opposition defence inwards and exploit the overlap. Willian’s goal against Burnley at Turf Moor showcased another variation of this move, this time resulting in the 31-year-old shifting the ball from left to right before finding the bottom corner. Initially picking the ball up by the right-hand touchline he drove infield before himself taking advantage of the space out wide to create the angle for a shot.
Injuries to Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi have placed more scrutiny on Willian’s goal output. But the fact he is performing marginally above his expected goals tally of 4.45 whilst also averaging a healthy 2.43 shots per 90 suggests he is fulfilling the more withdrawn role assigned to him by Frank Lampard. He has been an ever-present member of Chelsea’s squad this season, and his efforts are clearly viewed as a vital component of how Lampard wishes to play.
Aside from all the statistical analysis about his game, Willian has been at the centre of some of the most pivotal moments in Chelsea’s season. His two-goal haul against Tottenham was arguably his finest hour in a Chelsea shirt, and he backed it up just days later with a superb assist for Abraham’s late winner away at Arsenal. It’s symptomatic of his importance to the side that when Willian plays at his very best, Chelsea pull off their two most impressive results under Lampard.
With Willian’s key pass statistics clearly outlining him as Chelsea’s most efficient creator, there is certainly an argument to say that a young and often inconsistent Chelsea team have let Willian down on numerous occasions by performing far below their expected goals tally this season. As previously mentioned, Willian himself was actually performing above his own expected goals tally, and with that comparison, I feel vindicated in suggesting that the Brazilian has enjoyed one of his best seasons in a Chelsea shirt. With this seemingly Willian’s final year at the club, I implore fans and pundits alike to apply the aforementioned parameters to his performances before judging his career in West London with a skewed preconception of his role within in the team.
Edited by: Dan