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On the Constant Precipice of Greatness

Willian’s Enigmatic Chelsea Career

Chelsea FC v Everton FC - Premier League Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

He had hit the right post. He had hit the left post.

Chelsea were in the middle of a painfully tense first leg Round of 16 Champions League match against Barcelona — a club that seems to possess a divine right to advance to, at the very least, the semi-final stage of the competition each season — and Willian, despite his best, most valiant efforts, just…could…not…score. Each of the two times a Willian shot rattled the framework of the goal it punctuated an otherwise brilliant bit of football with frustration. It was typical Willian. He was relentlessly nearing greatness, but just couldn’t seem to reach it.

With greying hair and chewed fingernails, the Stamford Bridge crowd watched on as the match entered its second half with Chelsea and Barcelona still deadlocked at nil all. Surely, the Blues had missed their chance(s). If Chelsea had only had an elite winger playing down the right flank and not an almost elite winger — Gareth Bale doesn’t almost score goals in big matches, he actually, literally does score them — then Chelsea would have been winning and Barcelona would have been losing. Barca would have had to have settled for avenging 2012 another year.

But then, Willian was great. In the 62nd minute, he had apparently had enough of near-greatness, of agonized reactions to his previous shots. From just outside the box he fired an assertive, clever, daisy-cutter of a shot that left Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen flatfooted and helpless and actually, literally gave Chelsea a 1-0 lead. It was typical Willian. He was a crucial contributor to two Premier League title-winning Chelsea teams, and here he was crucially contributing in a massive Champions League match against Barcelona. Chelsea would ultimately draw the match and lose the tie, but in the first leg, Willian made a strong case for his essential value to the club (and he was one of the better players in the second leg, too).

So which Willian is the real Willian, then? Is he a player who’s almost great or is he a player who’s actually great? Is he a player eternally on the precipice of delivering megawatt football in megawatt moments or is he a player who grabs the spotlight and gladly points it directly over his head because he doesn’t mind the heat because he knows he has the skills to deliver big during his team’s biggest matches?

Willian arrived at Chelsea (after, notoriously, nearly signing with Andre Villas-Boas’ (!) Tottenham) in August 2013 and we’ve been debating ever since whether he’s good enough to be a regular starter on a team with ambitions to win all the trophies all the time. Interestingly, the statistics from Willian’s pre-Chelsea European exploits don’t paint a picture of a particularly prolific goal-scoring winger. In none of his five-and-a-half seasons playing with Shakthar Donetsk in the Ukrainian Premier League (which, it’s fair to say, is a level or six below the English Premier League) did Willian score more than five league goals.

Any notion that exists of Willian being a player that can be expected to contribute match-altering goals on a consistent basis perhaps comes from the four goals he scored in six Champions League matches (and especially the two he scored against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge) during the first half of the 2012-13 season. Glittering performances during the high stakes showcase that is the Champions League will always be significant to a player’s reputation, but even beyond the bright lights of Europe, Willian’s play was so eye-catching over this period — as of January 31st that season he had netted seven goals across all competitions with his previous full-season high having been eight — that former big-spending Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala paid Shakthar a transfer fee speculated to be around £34 million to acquire his services.

Chelsea FC v FC Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images

On August 25th, 2013, Chelsea paid Anzhi £30 million for Willian. Even today, player acquisitions involving transfer fees in the neighborhood of £30 million generate plenty of headlines. In 2013, they made everyone pay attention. Just two years prior Chelsea had ruined football by paying Liverpool a now quaint-looking, but then record-breaking £50 million for Fernando Torres. A player arriving at a club in 2013 for £30 million carried on his back substantial expectations.

Chelsea was also a different place back than it is now — at least stylistically on the pitch. Sarri-ball was still way off in the future (and based on recent Maurizio Sarri quotes, it still may be a way off) and the kamikaze thrills of Roberto Di Matteo’s brief stint as a full-time manager were looking like an increasingly distant past. Rafael Benitez and his ill-advised ties had brought defensive stability to the team in an interim role following the fun (but only sporadically successful) chaos that the departed Di Matteo had overseen, and excitement and speculation abounded over just how the newly reappointed Jose Mourinho would set Chelsea up to play — especially considering Chelsea had more diminutive flair players in the squad at the time than what Mourinho was usually comfortable operating with. But if we know anything about Mourinho, it’s that he would still still ultimately skew towards the defensive side of things.

Not that there weren’t flirtations with a more open style of football during Mourinho’s second stint with the club, but he typically had Chelsea line up in a rigid 4-2-3-1 formation to achieve his desired organization and structure, with Willian quickly establishing himself as the first-choice right winger. His first Chelsea goal on October 6th, 2013 against Norwich City (a brilliant, laser beam strike from just inside the right corner of the penalty area that’s still worth watching) likely furthered the idea that Chelsea had just added an outstanding, world-beating attacking player to the team, but as Mourinho’s tenure progressed, it became increasingly clear that Willian was primarily a regular feature in the starting eleven for his ability to stabilize the right side of the pitch defensively.

For much of Willian’s early time at Chelsea, the right side of the pitch was home to the aggressively marauding runs of right back Branislav Ivanovic and it was Willian who was tasked with covering the space vacated by the big man’s hilarious forward surges — it should be noted that Ivanovic’s forays forward were frequent and often essential to providing Chelsea width down the right flank opposite of Eden Hazard on the left, thus making Willian’s defensive coverage of those forays as essential as the forays themselves. Willian’s defensive contribution during this era isn’t necessarily something that’s easily quantified with basic statistics. Inasmuch as Willian didn’t put up the kind of gaudy tackling numbers that would make your typical Sky Sports pundits trip over themselves in a rush to be the first to shout “work rate.”

During Chelsea’s title winning 2014-15 season, Willian ranked just outside of the Premier League’s top ten in tackles completed by players classified as forwards. Willian’s 36 tackles that season represented a good, if not quite jaw dropping, return for an attacking player. Those tackling numbers look a bit more impressive, though, when you consider that those ranked ahead of him that season played on lesser teams (or happened to be superhuman pressing machine Alexis Sanchez) and thus were in a better position to accrue more tackles as their teams were without the ball for greater periods of time. Tackling stats aside, Willian’s positional awareness was excellent throughout the campaign and he was vital in Chelsea retaining a formidable shape that proved difficult for opponents to break down.

Chelsea FC v FC Schalke 04 - UEFA Champions League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Great positional awareness doesn’t exactly get hearts racing however. Willian scored just twice in 2014-15 and only had three assists to go along with that undistinguished goal output. And because his basic defensive metrics were at sub-Roberto Firmino levels — Firmino, despite developing into a menacing goal-scoring threat, is perhaps the gold standard for a player who ostensibly plays an attacking position but whose real value is widely known to come from other, non-traditional attacking skills — it’s not difficult to fathom why many supporters were clamoring for a more incandescent player with more readily quantifiable value to supplant Willian in the starting lineup. There were Antoine Griezmann rumors. There were Gareth Bale rumors. But no superstar arrived at Stamford Bridge in the aftermath of Chelsea’s 2014-15 title victory, and so it was again to be Willian patrolling the right wing the following season.

So yeah, about that 2015-16 season … no one wants to remember that season. And for good reason: Chelsea’s 2015-16 season was terrible. For a player who divides fan opinion though, it’s awfully cruel that Willian had his most complete season as a Chelsea player during a season that most Chelsea fans have erased from their memories Men in Black-style. Willian finished the Season from Hell with five goals and six assists in league play (and, more impressively, he notched five goals across eight Champions League matches) and was at various points throughout the campaign perceived to be the only Chelsea player performing like anything resembling a professional footballer. For elevating himself above the rubble, Willian was named Chelsea’s Player of the Year.

Antonio Conte would triumphantly rescue Chelsea from mid-table malaise the campaign after Mourinho’s now trademark third season disaster, but as the Blues were winning match after match en route to claiming the 2016-17 Premier League title, Willian increasingly found himself a second choice option to a revitalized Pedro in Chelsea’s starting eleven — after initially being dropped due to circumstances entirely out of his control, missing almost a month while on bereavement leave. Pedro notched nine goals and nine assists in league play (finally a true goalscoring threat opposite Hazard!) while Willian’s Premier League minutes dropped from 2,766 in 2015-16 to 1,509 in 2016-17.

Willian remained an effective player in a reduced role in his two seasons under Conte — his league minutes in that second season increased slightly to 1,872, but he still wasn’t a regular starter despite Pedro’s form coming back down to earth — and he did manage to pop up with the occasional big goal still. He had the aforementioned strike against Barcelona in the Champions League and there was also his breathtaking counter-attack finish against Manchester City during the previous season’s title-winning campaign. Both goals were superb reminders of the raw ability he unquestionably possesses, but those moments where Willian’s ability did emphatically shine through always felt incongruous with the ‘effective role player’ status that had come to define him under Conte.

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

Under Maurizio Sarri, Willian has seen his playing time increase (he’s already played more league minutes this season than he did in all of 2016-17), but that hasn’t decreased the debate regarding whether he’s actually good enough to prominently feature in the first team. And big changes could well be imminent. Great American Hope Christian Pulisic will arrive from Borussia Dortmund this summer and the hype (not to mention the interest from Bayern Munich) circulating around 18-year-old Callum Hudson-Odoi is becoming too persistent to ignore. Both players are wingers and have an abundance of talent. It’s possible that one or both of them will soon push Willian down the depth chart and become the star that the he himself could never quite become at Chelsea.

Genuine stars are hard to develop though. It’s far more likely that a promising player fails to realize his potential and ends up spending his career toiling away in lower leagues than it is that he actually succeeds and becomes football’s next superstar (see: McEachran, Josh). In a certain light, Willian’s enigmatic Chelsea career is sneakily impressive. Willian’s not a household name like Griezmann or Bale, but he’s been a dependable member of Chelsea’s squad for over half a decade now. And while Willian may not ignite Chelsea’s attack with double digit goals in the Premier League every season, he’s been important to the team’s buildup play and transitions both on offense and defense since he arrived. Since 2014-15, only Hazard and the recently moved on passing wizard Cesc Fabregas have averaged more key passes per 90 minutes in league play than Willian (where ‘key pass’ is defined as a pass that leads to a shot — “shot-assist” as some have started to call them).

Maybe the nagging feeling that Willian could be contributing more has obfuscated what he actually has contributed. Should Willian be playing the pass that leads to the shot or should he be taking the shot himself? Maybe, somewhat weirdly, Willian’s sporadic moments of transcendence (and the belief that there could and should be more of those moments) have overshadowed his more frequent moments as a reliably good complimentary player for Chelsea. Maybe Willian hasn’t quite been the player that many have wanted him to be, but he’s often been a player that Chelsea have needed.

Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur - The Emirates FA Cup Semi-Final Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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