Willian was one of the standout performers of the opening weekend of the season, as he delivered an excellent creative display for Arsenal. The transfer was criticised due to the contract length and big wages given to the 32-year-old. In the long term, it may be that this was a poor piece of business by the Gunners. However, based on Saturday, it is clear that the former Chelsea man brings something that the team was lacking last season.
The Mesut Ozil saga has rumbled on at the Emirates Stadium for years. There are two sides of the debate. One side are angry that the German remains at the club doing nothing to justify his huge wages. Meanwhile, the other believe he has been unfairly sidelined based on non-footballing decision. They believe Ozil still has something to contribute to the team and if he remains at the club, he has a part to play. Last season, the 30-year-old averaged 3.94 shot creating actions per ninety minutes, higher than any other Arsenal player with more than 500 Premier League minutes to their name.
There was a lack of quality in transition, with a reliance on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to provide the goal threat. Mikel Arteta identified the lack of creativity in midfield as a key area to strengthen. It looks like Willian will be the player signed to do this. He has proven quality in the Premier League, as shown by his average of 5.02 shot creating actions per ninety minutes last season. Over the last three seasons, he has consistently averaged more than five in this metric, aided by his set piece delivery.
On Saturday, Willian was excellent and arguably the best player on show, with a hand in each of Arsenal’s three goals. It was his awareness in the penalty box that led to the opening goal, as he kept the ball alive and put the keeper under pressure. Alexandre Lacazette was alert to finish the chance.
However, it was the second and third goal that showed what Willian will be able to provide on a more regular basis. His delivery for Gabriel was of the highest quality and gave his compatriot an easy task of heading home. It wasn’t the best defending by Fulham, but it still showed the quality that the 32-year-old possesses.
Then, to cap off his creative performance, he picked up the ball just inside Fulham’s half and picked out the run of Aubameyang. The club captain did the rest and finised the move superbley. It was a great move by the Gunners, underlining how Willian has already adjusted to life in North London. He knew where Aubameyang would be and had the quality to pick out the run. At times, the Gabon international lacked that service last season and that was why some wanted Ozil back in the team.
It was an overall performance to get excited about. During the match, Willian had two shots, three key passes and completed 96% of his passes. He rarely took a misstep and came close to scoring directly from a free-kick, but his effort struck the base of the post. Arteta withdrew him after 75 minutes, once his job had already been done. He will need to manage the attacker’s minutes with the amount of matches to be played.
Supporters will be wary that this was only the opening weekend and the opposition are expected to be in the relegation fight. However, there were pleasing signs and it was a continuation of the progress made by Arteta towards the end of last season. There needs to be caution, as the Gunners are still some distance from challenging for major honours. That said, the performances on the pitch should provide hope.
The signing of Willian could be an important piece on the short term development of the club, as they attempt to challenge for Champions League qualification once again.