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Why did Chelsea not sell Willian to Barcelona?

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Theorising on why we did not “pull a fast one” on Barcelona

FC Barcelona v Chelsea FC - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

When the news hit that Chelsea had rebuffed another offer, the third of its kind, in excess of £55 million for Willian, it seemed like a baffling turn of events. It took yet another turn for the worse when the very next day, Barcelona gazumped AS Roma to secure the signature of Willian’s countryman Malcom from Bordeaux instead.

Could this be yet another spectacular failure by the Chelsea Board, who have had their fair share of misses in the last few transfer windows? After all, Willian, who did not bother to hide his growing discontentment as last season wore on, is two weeks away from his 30th birthday, and with just two years left on his contract, his value will never be as high as what Barcelona had offered.

Or should we perhaps consider the possibility that instead of playing with Barcelona’s desperation to draw out every single penny from their pocket, Chelsea were instead simply keen on holding onto Willian (like Sarri and David Luiz have specifically said recently as well)? After all, Chelsea have hardly been linked with any players who could conceivably replace him, with Monaco-bound Golovin the only possible candidate, but not really.

Chelsea v Manchester United - The Emirates FA Cup Final Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

It is easy to point out the negatives Willian’s his game, from indecisions to inconsistencies. His last act of last season, when he threw a social media hissy-fit by erasing/covering up Antonio Conte in the celebratory FA Cup title picture, does not paint him in a good light either.

But if we put all that aside, we still have a very good player on our hands. When Willian’s in form, there are few others like him or better than him at what he does. He could fit very well into Maurizio Sarri’s tactics.

It’s always easy to under-rate our own players and over-rate players from other teams, but at the end of the day, very few players have been as useful or productive (and not just in the goals-/assist-sense) as Willian over the past few years. If he was a total scrub, Barcelona (or Manchester United) wouldn’t be knocking on the door in the first place!

The likes of Bale, or Sterling would be clear upgrades, while the likes of Thauvin, Di Maria, or Suso would be at least as good but probably unavailable. And that means that Chelsea would have to downgrade, at least in the short-term. That’s a risk inherent with replacing any established player, even if the replacements could be dream-targets like Bailey or Pulisic — neither of whom have made it even to solid rumor status beyond fans’ flights of fancy, it should be noted.

But Willian could be unlocked as well under the new head coach. At Napoli last season, Sarri was keen on “congesting” the left flank. It was where their main attacking outlets, left-back Faouzi Ghoulam and left winger Lorenzo Insigne, would be found. Meanwhile their counterparts, right-back Elseid Hysaj and right winger José María Callejón, were akin to a “relief valve” for the team.

At Chelsea, it is a similar situation. Either Marcos Alonso or Emerson are better offensively than César Azpilicueta, and Eden is head-and-shoulders above Willian on the pitch. Sarri knows how to handle these circumstances with an asymmetric tactic that yielded great results for Napoli.

Napoli’s attack sides and action zones; Source: Whoscored

Plus, if Callejón could get 10 goals and 10 assists for Napoli, it’s hard to see Willian not being able to replicate those numbers (provided everything else clicks as well). Willian is faster, flashier, a better dribbler, a better shooter and creator as well. Willian may not even need to be as “hidden” as much Callejón was.

Brighton and Hove Albion v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

We may never really know what happened or why Barcelona switched gears so quickly. Perhaps Chelsea overplayed their hand. Perhaps Manchester United factor in somehow. Or perhaps Barcelona just saw a better deal, a la Chelsea with Jorginho instead of Golovin. Either way, we appear set for another season with Willian, his sixth at the Bridge. It might just be his best yet!