A virtual cacophony of groans generally accompany the sight of Willian’s name on every freshly announced team sheet. It is, after all, nearly 2020. Chelsea shelled out bags of cash for Christian Pulisic, and yet more bags in new wages for Callum Hudson-Odoi over the past calendar year. Yet Willian remains one of the first names on every team sheet — and we should be thankful.
In theory, it is true that Chelsea should not still be relying on a 31-year-old notoriously inconsistent winger. It also remains true that, in theory, Chelsea would be better off with more creative ideas than a feint and a directionless fizzed-in cross that’s more missile than “chance created”. And it is also true, at least in theory, that in a sport where a decision made a beat quicker than the opponent can make all the difference in any given contest, the hopeful audacity of youth is often more beneficial than the muscle memory of legs stuffed with a continent’s worth of mileage.
But then there’s the reality of Willian burning Bukayo Saka, a man thirteen years his junior, to a crisp in the 87th minute to give Chelsea numbers on a counter, and then collect the winning assist with a feint and a fizzed-in cross. Willian and Tammy Abraham combined for a couple give-and-gos over the length of Arsenal’s half to complete not only one of the funniest wins but also earn some of the most crucial three-points of the season.
Seven days prior, Willian was at the center of attention once again when Chelsea lined up against a suddenly resurgent Tottenham Hotspur, who were no longer experiencing the joy of their overbearing old manager, and were instead in the delightful honeymoon phase where José Mourinho’s kind, thoughtful, and takes the trash out without having to be asked. They had scored fourteen goals in the five matches prior (all wins except for a 2-1 loss to Manchester United) and were suddenly breathing down our necks in the table.
Twelve minutes in, Serge Aurier bit on Willian’s signature move — the one we’ve all seen, at minimum, six kabillion times — and he found a gap to steer a powerful shot into the net. He would later add a penalty to make it 2-0 to The Fighting Willians.
And that, at the moment, is what makes Willian more irreplaceable than most of us vocal critics want. He certainly doesn’t deserve the amount of online vitriol he receives — nearly no one does; also, if you’re one of those doing that, cut that out — but he is also a genuinely frustrating player. His ability is never in question, it’s merely his execution and inconsistency. In the span of seven days he defeated Spurs then Arsenal, and during a period when points from any match were proving extremely hard to come by — even against Southampton.
The paradox that is Willian was also on the pitch for nearly every one of Chelsea’s recent embarrassments (Pedro and Pulisic were the starting wingers for the loss to West Ham). In theory, one who can be the difference in matches against higher calibers of talent should then have less of a problem against teams flopping about in the sewers of the league table.
That Willian can do nothing against bad teams and everything against good ones increases the frustration factor exponentially. But this is how it has always been. He is in his seventh season with Chelsea and has never notched double digit goals or assists (in the league; he had done so in all competitions three season in a row once, from 2015 to 2018).
As 2019 fizzles out and we enter the futuristic year of 2020, Willian remains. And sometimes we should remind ourselves that it’s okay to be thankful that we have him.