Why Willian Works
Ever since Arsenal were linked to the Brazilian in the summer, a growing section of the fanbase have been questioning the wisdom of handing sizable wages to a player that had fallen out of favour at a rival club. Some didn’t particularly mind the size of the contract but the length. Do we really think a 34 year old Willian could still cut it in the Premier League?
However, in the subsequent wave of criticism that followed his signing and poor performances earlier on in the season, a lot of things were missed.
First off, about the signing itself: Willian was brought in for dependability. Everyone knew how streaky Pepe was. Arteta knew he couldn’t depend on streaky Pepe for 38 matches week in week out. The club was not exactly flush for cash and then the Willian situation developed. The 31-year-old was by this time a veteran of Premier League and Champions League football. He was not exactly Salah or even Eden Hazard but he was a regular for a club that won the Premier League, Europa League and reached a couple of finals on the side. His performances mostly ranged from decent to very good and by the time he left the noisy neighbours, he was as experienced as they come. Forget the numbers for a moment, that is particularly attractive when your wing options are only teenagers who haven’t yet played a full season of football. Willian was signed for his experience and dependability.
Another reason for his signing was the fact that he offers a different profile to most of our wing options. Pepe, Aubameyang, Martinelli are all best as inside forwards who run off the ball. Only Saka on the left was able to operate creatively between the lines and he was needed elsewhere. Willian’s play was in his ability to receive the ball under immense pressure and in the small spaces of the final third without losing it. That was something we sorely lacked and needed. Even prototypical inside forwards like Mane and Salah are extremely capable of doing this. Since Aubameyang’s return to the centre forward position and Lacazette’s displacement, our need for creative wingers in the final third has only increased. This is why Willian always plays. He is the correct natural profile for the role. Playing all of Pepe, Auba and Martinelli especially when we are not purely counterattacking is asking for a lack of ball retention in the final third which makes it difficult to sustain attacking pressure. Sustaining pressure is the holy grail of attacking football. If you can somehow keep recycling the ball around the final third with penetration and without losing it for long periods, you will most likely end up scoring.
Until we bring in another winger with the same natural profile (Grealish, Eze, etc), Willian is an obvious shoo-in for matchdays. Fans may not understand it but that is the tactical reality. That is how the coach and most coaches understand football. As fans, this may be frustrating but once we understand what they are doing, we can perhaps scream less every time we see Willian starting over Pepe.