It’s difficult to properly eulogize the Chelsea career of a player who will be coming out of the wrong dressing room the next time we play Arsenal, but the business of football, particularly in this present era, can lead to casualties that become oddities. And Willian joining David Luiz at the Gunners is nothing if not odd. Nevertheless, I’m compelled to stand and somberly walk to the podium to say a few words about Willian Borges da Silva.
Admittedly, the selfishness of envy is my primary motivator for speaking up. Willian possessed every trait I would want to possess if it was possible to create-a-player myself into a professional footballer. This is partly because I lack restraint when given a smorgasbord of sliders to giddily do with what I please. Pace, dribbling and shot power would immediately go all the way up, as would the ability to strike a free kick. Before I’d know it, visions of what I’d be capable of would be too fantastic to resist, I’d press start and get to it.
This is of course an exaggeration, and a slightly mean one at that, but that is the sort of thing Willian’s career brings about. Even at 32, there aren’t many in the Premier League quicker or with more top end speed than him. Add his fast feet, the odd five-star trick or two, a powerful snap shot — just all inconsistently applied.
It’s almost like his attributes were locked in separate safes: sometimes he could crack two in succession and create something good, very rarely was he slick enough to unlock all three in enough time to use all their contents. Ultimately this became something we all learned to live with, primarily because he never needed to upstage Eden Hazard, his opposite flank wingmate the majority of his Chelsea career. Even so, it still felt like the solution to Willian’s inconsistency was to just place all his attributes in one safe and remember the combination. Had he been able to, his career would have looked vastly different.
That’s the conundrum of Willian, even as remained an undroppable member of the Chelsea starting XI across X seasons, X managers, and X other right wing options (Juan Mata, Kevin De Bruyne, Mo Salah, Juan Cuadrado, Pedro among them). Though Willian never found a way to hit double-digits in goals or assists in a Premier League season, his pace, and willingness to use it whenever called upon, made him enough of a threat to make up for whatever else might have been lacking on the day — finishing, passing accuracy, a decent cross or corner that doesn’t hit the first defender.
Whenever a moment whispered that now would be a good time to go on a tendon-straining 30-60+ yard sprint, Willian never asked questions. The result not only kept any defense honest — a necessity with so many smothering pressing schemes bringing defensive lines high up the pitch — but tore holes in them. These spaces were used by tandems from Oscar and Hazard to Mount and Pulisic.
Admittedly, Ran Fast A Lot is a cold and quite glib bit of remembrance. Willian was indeed more, and in fact, when all his traits locked arms, he was capable of turning a match with a sudden thump.
The word ‘magical’ gets overused with Brazilian footballers, so much so that it becomes a standard. Every Brazilian attacker is expected to flick, trick, juggle, dribble, feint, nutmeg and dazzle through and around defenses at ease. Though Willian was known to execute an elastico or two, his impact was more about putting the ball into the net with some sort of suddenness. There was a simple directness to Willian’s game — even if only because he was never quite sure how to turn one move into two — that created a pile of stunning goals.
I think about his stepover and curling rocket into the far side netting versus Spurs, him taking note of a ball trickling away from the spot of a foul and walloping it into Crystal Palace’s net, placing a perfect curler into the top corner of Watford’s net, or his grass-shaving rocket into the bottom corner of Barcelona’s net. A personal favorite is how he sprinted alongside Fernando Torres to collect a simple pass and casually detonate the title dreams of Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool.
Not only does Willian’s hairstyle and pace make him impossible to lose from a broadcast view, but his wonderful smile and persistent laughter made him a favorite among his teammates. Also, it never hurt that Willian quite often did a lot of the running so many of them didn’t have to. There was a consistent and daily brightness and genuineness to Willian at Chelsea, and it will surely be missed by his teammates.
What I will miss most, however, were the times when the purity of his demeanor gave way to an inner troll.
In fact, Willian’s Chelsea career began with a troll. Flying to London at Tottenham’s expense, he was told by his agent after his Spurs medical had been completed, that Chelsea were interested and made an offer. Willian immediately told him to accept. He then spent eight hours trapped at White Hart Lane listening to enraged Spurs executives try to save face. It’s possible that’s where Willian’s notorious hatred for Tottenham brewed, and why at the Battle of the Bridge it came back with a ferocity. UFC President Dana White would’ve been proud to sanction an event this full of hardcore violence.
Spurs were up 2-0 in the first-half against a Chelsea in the midst of our worst season in living memory. They desperately needed the three points to keep alive their hope of stomping on Leicester City’s Cinderella story.
Just before half-time, after a hard foul, Willian and Danny Rose got into a little shoving match. As they were separated, Willian walked up the pitch towards the visiting fans with his left arm straight at his side and rotated enough to show the gold Premier League patch on his shirt, signifying Chelsea as the defending Premier League champions. It was the closest Spurs would come to the title. I hope they admired the craftsmanship.
(Chelsea got one back early in the second half, then Hazard did a Hazard, taking two points from Spurs and hand-delivering the title to Leicester.)
There are a lot of players who will never reach Willian’s heights, more who will never have his longevity, and though we can pore through the numbers and sharpen our scalpels to detail all the times Willian didn’t do what we thought he should, he was more than we ever gave him credit for. As his career and place in the starting XI continued year after year, Willian’s name was often uttered through a sigh. It’s human nature, I suppose. When you’re around someone long enough to memorize their faults and flaws, you forget to also pay attention to their gifts. Without work, annoyance is easier to reach than joy; frustration simpler to grasp than appreciation.
Gratitude and mindfulness are not in the vocabulary of many football fans. Most seasons end in failure and when they do there is always blame. Our proclivities toward selfishness mix with the fickleness of football bubbles in a cauldron that releases disdain, and a yearning for whatever we do not have. So though Willian is now gone, and we appear to be left in the very capable feet of Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi, we can now look back on what Willian did for Chelsea — ran, conservatively, 900 million wind-sprints; scored bangers; trolled our rivals — and the player he was. Hopefully when we mention his name now we can do so with the brightness he’s earned; or, if for no other reason, to make up for all of the sighs.