What Willian will bring to Arsenal on the pitch
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
I’m back. After a couple weeks off from this site, having not had any time off from covering Arsenal in over a year, I’m finally back up and running. To commence my return to action, I thought I’d write about something I was very vocal about on my Instagram, and something that made me a bit of a pantomime villain in the Arsenal online community in general.
On Friday 14th, we announced our only confirmed signing this summer thus far- Willian on a ‘free’ from Chelsea. Personally, I had reservations around the nature of the deal and, unlike several fans who appeared to change their mind on the player once the deal happened, I wasn’t afraid to let my concerns known on my platform. Offering any 32-year-old a three-year deal doesn’t seem like effective squad building, but a winger who’s already shown signs of declining in his underlying metrics seems particularly bemusing. He’ll offer very little resale value and is only likely to get worse over the next few years. How many 34-year-old wingers do you see thriving at any level?
Factor in his large weekly wage in excess of £100,000 a week, his extortionate add-ons, bonus’, signing on fee and agent fees, and this deal is far from free. In fact, it represents another example of the executive panel being financially reckless in the transfer market, and not allocating the club’s limited resources in the best possible way.
Having said that, enough of being negative around this deal. Some of the backlash I received was justified. Now he’s an Arsenal player, we must back him and we must acknowledge that, at least next season, he can offer us something on the pitch that we are currently lacking. So, I thought I’d do a piece entirely dedicated to looking at what Willian will bring to Arteta’s team.
It’s no secret that Arsenal struggled to create chances last season- there was a lack of both high quality and quantity of opportunities laid on for our forward players on a consistent basis. We ranked in a staggeringly low 13th for expected goals for, below the likes of West Ham, Burnley, Brighton and relegated Watford. This, by far the lowest in the xGF table we’ve been since xG stats were created. The age old narrative that we’re excellent going forward but just can’t defend no longer stands. We were diabolical at both last season, but particularly offensively.
So, reinforcements in the creative sector of the pitch are dearly needed. Progressing the ball into the final third and finishing chances has not be our problem. It’s our ability to get the ball from the advanced areas into good shooting positions that’s been the issue. Mesut Ozil no longer does this like he used to, Joe Willock doesn’t seem to be a creator, Dani Ceballos thrives in deeper areas, whilst a youngster who looks like he could eventually take some of this creative responsibility in Emile Smith-Rowe was sent out on loan in January. Too much of a creative burden was left on Nicolas Pepe, who is supposed to be more of a goal threat than a creator, with a creator feeding him the best way to maximise his effectiveness.
Willian could go some way to alleviating that reliance on Pepe. Last season, of players who managed more than 1,000 minutes in the Premier League, only nine registered a greater xA per 90 metric than Willian. Of those nine, just two would be considered archetypal wingers (Riyad Mahrez and Son Heung-Min), with the rest operating in more central areas. His 0.24 xA/90 demonstrating his impressive ability to create high quality chances on a consistent basis. This number putting him on par with Raheem Sterling, and ahead of the likes of Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Bernardo Silva, all of whom would be considered creative players. It also puts him significantly ahead of our most creative player from last campaign, in Pepe, who managed 0.2 xA/90.
Not only does he create high quality chances, he also creates chances at a good rate. He managed 2.46 key passes per 90 last season, averaging out at a chance created every 36.5 minutes. This ranked him as the eighth most prolific chance creator in the League last season (of players that played over 1,000 minutes).
The majority of the chances he creates come from cut-backs at the by-line. The Brazilian has a knack of getting into dangerous areas by making underlapping runs or dribbling to the by-line using his pace and close control. From there, he’s very good at picking his teammates out in crowded penalty areas, even when working with marginal amounts of space or difficult angles. This makes him very useful in breaking down low compact blocks, something we’ve struggled at over the last two seasons.
He’s also creative from central areas when he’s able to drift in from his initial wide starting position. He often finds himself in space in between the lines, and is very able at turning in these tight areas and finding intricate passes in and around the penalty box. Arsenal struggled to get the ball into the box in general last season, only completing 8.4 passes into the penalty area per game. Willian himself managed 2.35 per 90, so his direct passing should enable us to get more control in the attacking third and get the ball into more threatening areas in general.
Willian also offers creativity from set-pieces, delivering dangerous balls from both corners and wide free-kicks, shown in his impressive set-piece xA. With Arsenal becoming increasingly threatening from set-pieces last season, and having appointed a set-piece specialist from Brentford in the last few days, this could be an avenue Arteta looks to utilise Willian from.
Simply put, Arsenal lacked goals last season. Having netted 73 times in the 18/19 season, we went on to manage just 56 last campaign in the Premier League. A significant reduction. And whilst our proficiency in front of goal was not bad last season (in fact we were pretty clinical, scoring 56 from just 52.3 xG), we didn’t possess the players who were capable of getting into goal scoring positions on a frequent enough basis. Whilst this is certainly a consequence of creating less, it is also a reflection of poor movement and poor positioning from our forward players.
Willian managed an xG of 0.25 per 90 in the Premier League last campaign, which demonstrates how capable he is of getting into goal scoring positions, with his clever movement off the ball. Only our two strikers, Alex Lacazette (0.41) and Pierre-Emerick Auabameyang (0.48) managed higher xG numbers per 90. This essentially just means that Willian is indeed a goal threat. Yes, he was playing in a better offensive side than our players, and yes this metric is boosted by the 4 penalties he took, but his ability to consistently pop up with a goal cannot be understated. He’s managed double figures in four of his last five seasons. In comparison, only Lacazette, Aubameyang and Gabriel Martinelli have managed a surplus of 10 goals in all competitions in each of the last two seasons for Arsenal.
Not only is he capable of taking a penalty or scoring from a free-kick, Willian notoriously produces spectacular long range efforts. His ability to quickly shift the ball away from an opponent onto either foot and strike a ball with pace and accuracy is something this current Arsenal side lacks. Only Nicolas Pepe regularly provides the side with a goal threat from outside the box, and very occasionally Granit Xhaka.
He does have a tendancy to shoot at the wrong time or in poor positions when there are better choices available, but his unpredictability in that sense could be very useful to what is a very predictable attacking system we currently have under Arteta.
Arteta has shown an increasing desire to implement a cohesive pressing system at Arsenal, and we saw signs of this in the closing weeks of the season, particularly in games against Norwich and Southampton. However, he doesn’t necessarily currently have the tools at his disposal to implement this system.
With pressing machine Gabriel Martinelli out until 2021, it was imperative Arsenal addressed this loss with another forward player who is capable of pressing. Whilst Willian isn’t the most relentless presser of the ball, he has spent over a year now playing under Frank Lampard, who was insistent on his players pressing high up the pitch. Willian made 18.2 pressures per 90 last season, a modest amount, but 28.4% of his pressures led to pressure regains (squad gaining possession 5 seconds after pressure was applied), which demonstrates how Willian is wise when picking his moment to press, and is very successful in doing so.
I may not be all that enthused by this signing, but I cannot deny that next season Willian is more than capable of improving our side in a few areas. It’s the following two seasons where I’m worried. Prove me wrong Will.