Willian has today announced his departure from Chelsea after seven years of service to the club. Tom Overend reflects on his memories of the Brazilian playmaker, and why his legacy will always be divided amongst fans.
Willian is one of the most skilful players to ever set foot at Chelsea Football Club. Born in the deprivation of Ribeirão Pires in the vicinity of Sao Paolo, Willian Borges da Silva has always had a glimpse of magic to overcome the odds – stand out from the crowd – and become a superstar.
After breaking his foot playing football at the age of just two, a feat unmatched by many, he then showed potential as an impressive samba drummer on the streets of his hometown. Soon, though, by the age of nine he was back playing football for the youth ranks of local powerhouse Corinthians. He always has been a man of many talents, saying himself that his non-footballing destiny would be the rhythmic universe of samba.
Travelling almost six-thousand miles, Chelsea fans had the privilege of seeing the glowing magic which has accompanied Willian throughout his life. Stamford Bridge was lit up by his unique effervescence, upstaging Lionel Messi and unlucky not to put three past the mighty Barcelona. There were times when football was just too easy for him, languidly easing attractive dragbacks and rabonas past admiring opposition.
Willian was instantly a popular figure at Chelsea, choosing the club over rivals Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2013. The terraces often sing of this infamous decision, halting his move to North London in the middle of his medical upon the call of duty from Roman Abramovich.
Willian was a regular fixture in his first season at the club, but broke through amongst the best in his second campaign. Linking up with Eden Hazard and Diego Costa, he was a centre piece of the scintillating football that was played that year. His contributions that year are often understated, scoring a crucial last-minute winner against Everton which set José Mourinho’s team on the way to the Premier League title. Goals and assists were hard to come by, but his work rate and persistent creativity ensured he remained an asset to the team in that special campaign.
Willian would often shine at our hour of greatest need, rising alone when others were down. This resurgent attitude characterised his pièce-de-résistance during the disastrous title defence of 2015. Whilst others weren’t able or willing (a story for another day), Willian stood tall above the rest. He was our creator, our saviour and. for a short while, our goalscorer. These were crucial goals, preventing a despairing side from slipping into the relegation zones at home, and securing safe passage into the knockout stages in Europe. Remarkably, his first six goals of the campaign were all direct free-kicks! The sign, I’d say, of a true samba magician.
The revolving door of management was never truly kind to Willian, despite his constant playing time throughout his stint at the club. It took time for him to gain the trust of new manager Antonio Conte, playing second-fiddle on the flanks to Hazard and Pedro for much of resurgent title-winning campaign. There were important moments; including a smash-and-grab finish to cement victory at Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, but the momentum of the previous season had waned somewhat as the season drew to a close.
But, in true magician style, he re-appeared from the abyss. Given his opportunity at Wembley against Tottenham in the FA Cup Semi Final, Willian needed no second invitation. When Michy Batshuayi was brought down during the opening exchanges in a dangerous position, there was never any doubt who would step up. Willian fizzed the ball inside Hugo Lloris’ far post, calming any nerves arising from a match against our closest challengers. He later netted a penalty to cement the lead, and was the cog in the well-oiled machine that powered past the Lilywhites and into the Final.
He was again to become a more pivotal figure in the midst of a tough title defence. After a poor start, Willian was able to breathe life into a Chelsea side that had begun to decay into freefall by the winter. Three straight defeats preluded a crucial run of domestic fixtures and a European Round of 16 against Barcelona. Teammates were wounded, and again our little magician stood up to be counted. Morale-boosting entrées against Hull and West Brom set the scene for his finest performance in Royal Blue. Barcelona simply could not cope with the guile of Willian at Stamford Bridge.
That night the world was at his feet. His trickery, football intelligence and eye for a longshot came together in the most irresistible way. After twice striking the post from ambitious angles, Willian sent the whole stadium into ruptures after scoring a delightful effort past Marc-André Ter Stegen from the edge of area. It is no hyperbole to say that he was the finest player on the pitch, scintillating with almost every touch of the ball.
The performance was so good that it attracted the wondering eye of that night’s opposition, who were looking out for a Brazilian suitor to Neymar. His last two seasons at the club were blighted by rumours of offers and potential moves to the continent, and rarely showcased his best form. It might well be argued that his time at the club may have been wound up a year ago, had the recruitment difficulties of transfer ban not dominated the horizon. There were moments, yes, in which he was to justify his inclusion in this period: best epitomised by his Man of the Match performance against Tottenham (again!) last December.
Despite all this, his legacy will long be debated by Chelsea fans across the world. There will always be a battle of two Willians that bestrode Stamford Bridge. First, ‘Willian the Samba Magician’, so smooth and domineering in possession, known for his free-kick magic and regular stepovers and picking us up when we’re on the verge of downfall. However, that is worn down by the ‘Willian the Underachiever’: hampered by inconsistency, a lack of regular goals and an irritable knack of delivering woeful corners.
There will always be that ghost with Willian; wondering what might have been if he could have strung together his samba magic for longer stretches. What might have been if he could have scored more goals, never hitting double-figures in a single season. What might have been if performances like that against Barcelona could have been replicated on a weekly basis.
Willian Borges da Silva leaves Chelsea after seven success-laden seasons, and with plenty of magic moments that will be replayed by Chelsea fans throughout the coming years.
Willian Borges da Silva: Chelsea 2013-2020
- Premier League: 2014/15, 2016/17
- FA Cup: 2017/18
- EFL Cup: 2014/15
- UEFA Europa League: 2018/19
What are your favourite memories of Willian? Let us know in the comments below?