Arsenal take calculated risk with latest thirty-something signing Willian
Brazilian's lucrative deal will be more controversial if he underperforms in Arteta's Gunners side
In one respect, history is repeating itself. An exuberant Brazilian is swapping Chelsea for Arsenal in his footballing dotage.
In another, Willian is not copying David Luiz as much as ploughing a unique path. He can boast a rare, perhaps even unique, distinction. His talents have persuaded five of England’s resident ‘Big Six’ to try and sign him. Such is a selfless worker’s appeal.
Rewind to 2013 and Liverpool pursued Willian, only for Tottenham to steal a march on them before Chelsea, in turn, swooped to get him from under their rivals’ noses.
Go back a couple of years and Jose Mourinho wanted a reunion with a former favourite at Manchester United. With Arsenal now getting Willian, it may leave Manchester City as the exceptions.
His enduring excellence is such that Chelsea offered a 32-year-old a two-year contract and Arsenal gave him a three-year deal.
If a relentless runner loses his dynamism before 2023 then Chelsea’s caution may seem wiser. Anyway, in Hakim Ziyech, they had replaced Willian before he had left.
Frank Lampard’s regular tributes to Willian – “a fantastic man and a fantastic player”– have been heartfelt but they can be free of recrimination. Chelsea have moved on from a talisman.
Arsenal’s short-termism is instructive. They have heeded Mikel Arteta’s calls to invest though, after they announced plans to make 55 members of staff redundant, Willian’s lucrative contract makes him both free and expensive and will be more controversial if he underperforms.
So, too, Arsenal’s increasingly close relationship with his agent Kia Joorabchian, the beneficiary of the decision to dispense with scouts.
But, along with the attempts to extend Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s contract, shows they have taken a calculated risk that two thirty-somethings can propel them back into the Champions League.
Arteta’s heady first few months have suggested he is manager who is destined for the top and while Arsenal’s band of emerging talents offered the chance of transition on a budget, it is now possible to see a squad of contrasting factions.
There is one group of well-paid, ageing players, a bigger one of youthful talents whose potential may be realised under a coach of similar promise, but with relatively few elite performers in between at their supposed peak ages.
If Willian’s incessant industry makes him something of an antidote to Mesut Ozil, his versatility means he could be the No 10 Arsenal have largely lacked since the German was exiled, though a less creative and more defensive one.
Arteta has tended to use other systems but tactical flexibility is part of his management and Willian’s ability to operate across the front line gives him an obvious appeal; so, too, the speed to prosper in what is increasingly a counter-attacking team.
That the majority of his Chelsea career was spent on the right invites questions about what it means for Nicolas Pepe; Arsenal’s record signing had a mixed debut year but ended making valuable contributions. Perhaps, instead, Willian could be deployed on the left, allowing Aubameyang to lead the line.
Certainly he looks the kind of big-game player Arsenal have lacked too often in recent years.
Arteta’s fine end to the season, with wins against Liverpool, City and Chelsea, marked a welcome improvement but Willian both forged a reputation as a player who prospered in adversity for Chelsea and, at times, scored a disproportionate amount of his goals against their peers.
Arsenal have not won a league game away at big-six opponents since 2015, whereas Willian got both goals when Chelsea won at Tottenham in December.
That sort of impact has tempted Arsenal to give Willian a deal that takes him up to his 35th birthday but they will require a return on a hefty investment.
Updated: August 13, 2020 07:23 AM