It was five years ago that Willian followed his heart — and a well timed phone call — to make the best decision of his career and join Chelsea. Since then, he’s won four trophies, including two Premier League titles, both more than the zero won by the North London club he was supposed to join.
Prior to all that, Willian spent his time in Eastern Europe. He was signed from Brazilian club Corinthians by Shakhtar Donetsk at the age of 19, and spent five-and-a-half years in Ukraine before moving to Russia’s Anzhi Makhachkala. This was only a six-month spell, thanks to a major financial crisis at the club, which gave Chelsea the opportunity to sign the speedy winger (as well as footballing legend Samuel Eto’o).
For many Brazilians, talented as they may be, Europe offers many hardships. From weather and culture to the lack of space on the pitch, the transition from one part of the world to another is a not an easy case. Willian was an instant success however.
“The football in Brazil is very different from the football here. Football here is more aggressive, more fast. There in Brazil it is more slow, you have more space, you have time to think.”
“Here sometimes people don’t have time to think because always you are under pressure, so I think it is very difficult to adapt in Europe. At the same time it was good for me, I adapted well in this 11 years in Europe so I am very happy with my career.”
Perhaps Willian’s adaptation and success is partly owed to the “gravity chamber” of the Ukrainian Premier League, and Shakhtar, especially, who had become a “pipeline” for Brazilian talent to Europe. Willian was just one of now over 30 Brazilians to pull on Shakhtar’s orange shirt since 2002, with the pipeline continuing to produce profits to this day — Fred sold to Manchester United this summer for €60m, with the club bringing in three players 21 or younger from Brazil at the same time (Fernando, Maycon, Marquinhos Cipriano), for example.
During his time in Donetsk, Willian not only helped Shakhtar become the first club from an independent Ukraine to win a European title, the 2008-09 UEFA Cup, but developed the sort of maturity, skills, and determination that have made him a key player at Chelsea since 2013.
“I think I am a bit European now as well because it is a lot of different culture and I am very happy because I learnt a lot from that. I was in Ukraine and six months in Russia so with five years here as well, it has been good for me.”
“For sure it helped that I was a bit older when I came to the Premier League. No doubts about that because I had more experience, I learned a lot and it was good for me to come here. It made it much easier to play in England. I think if I came direct from Brazil it would be more difficult to adapt but I came from Ukraine and I was able to adapt.”
-Willian; source: Chelsea FC
Willian made his name by playing on the left wing, but at Chelsea, that position already belonged to Eden Hazard. So Willian seamlessly transitioned to a right wing role, beating out the likes of Juan Mata, André Schürrle, Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne for the job over the years before Antonio Conte started rotating him a bit more with Barcelona’s Pedro a couple seasons ago. But his versatility has allowed him to play centrally as well (in place of Oscar for Mourinho, for example) or even on the left when Hazard was injured or unavailable. Depending on the fluidity of the tactics used, such changing of positions could happen during a game as well.
“I think here at Chelsea we have more freedom to change position. One time to go on the left and then to change to the right. Brazil (national team) was more static, I have to play more on the right and Neymar more on the left, so we cannot change positions. That is the difference.
“I don’t have any problem at all to play on the left or on the right. I like to play in these two positions. I can play on the left and I can play on the right, it depends on the manager. If he says to me to play on the left I am going to play, and if he says to me to play on the right I am going to play. I don’t have problems.”
-Willian; source: Chelsea FC
In fact, despite hitting the big three-oh and no longer being a regular in the starting lineup, Willian had the most productive year of his career last season, with 13 goals and 9 assists in 55 appearances. And he’s ready for more this term. Age is but a number, right?
“When you start to score goals you have more confidence, more confidence to continue to score, to continue to play well and that is football. In football you have to take your moment, and when your moment arrives you have to continue to carry on, to improve always.
“I improve a lot. Always when I go to the pitch I want to score goals and make assists for my team-mates, so I hope this season to do the same job that I did last season. I think I am in the good moment of my career. I am 30 years old and I arrive in the best moment of my career, so I just want to continue in the same way, to play the same or better than last season.”
That said, just a few months ago, it was not at all obvious that Willian would see a sixth season at Stamford Bridge. He fell out with Antonio Conte (despite leading the team in appearances) and was strongly linked with Manchester United and Barcelona in the summer, the latter of whom were confirmed to have submitted at least one bid, possibly as high as €60m.
But Willian claims he never wanted to leave Chelsea (especially once Conte’s fate was sealed).
“A lot of people, they say a lot of things in the press, but I never said that I want to leave Chelsea, never. Always I say that I want to stay at Chelsea as long as possible, and I am happy to stay here.
“My mind was always like that, always when I arrive here my plan was to stay here as long as possible and now I am here five years I hope stay five more! I know I have two years of contract left but I hope to stay more years in the Premier League.
“I am very happy to be here five years. I have won titles and played a lot of games with a lot of happy moments, and a few sad moments as well but that is part of football, but these five years have been very good for me and I am proud to be a Chelsea player.”
-Willian; source: Chelsea FC
With over 240 appearances (he’s just one behind Pat Nevin), Willian has become one of Chelsea’s current Old Guard. He has two years left on his contract, but depending on how well he continues adjusting to Sarri-ball, he could add many, many more to that.