Sunday marked six years to the day Willian netted his first goal in a Chelsea shirt away at Norwich in a 3-1 victory.
It was a moment of precision, finesse and brilliance that we’ve become accustomed to associating the Brazilian with. It was on that day, under the early Autumn sun that the buoyant away support introduced a new addition to the Chelsea hymn sheet.
Willian ‘saw the light’ and the growing affection of his new fans as for 10 minutes straight, the only noise reverberating around Carrow Road was that of the dazzling winger’s name who’d infamously rejected White Hart Lane and Andre Villas-Boas for Stamford Bridge and Jose Mourinho.
Jump forward to 2019 and Willian features in another rampant Blues away victory heading into the International Break. He stands out, optimising the work-rate and drive his new manager, Frank Lampard, demands of all his players.
Lampard was in midfield, not too far away from Willian when he executed that moment of beauty back in 2013 and not many could’ve predicted the legendary midfielder would be on the touchline instructing his peer in the same seat as Jose Mourinho six seasons later.
Despite that wonderful debut goal and several magical moments following, Willian has come in for a lot of criticism in recent years. His lack of consistency and potency in front of goal has been a constant strain for fans, and as a younger crop of wingers have emerged in the form of Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic, many fans have expressed the view the now 31-year-old would struggle for minutes.
Though like he has throughout his whole career in west London, Willian has managed to keep himself as a first team regular. From Mourinho, to Hiddink, to Conte, to Sarri, to Lampard – all of the managers Willian has played under have given him significant minutes in their systems.
Whatever your personal opinion on his ability, it is an impressive feat and one that gives critics pause to contemplate why his name has been a consistent ever-present in Chelsea’s match-day squads since arriving from Anzhi Makhachkala.
Returning late from the Copa America triumph in his home nation this Summer, Willian had to wait to gain minutes as the newly-arrived Pulisic and Mount would be favoured on both wings by Lampard in a 4-3-3. In two substitute appearances at home to Leicester and Sheffield United, the winger appeared sluggish and off the pace. On both occasions, the Blues would go on to drop points conceding equalisers in the second half.
Based off the back of these brief cameos there wasn’t much appetite to see his name in the starting eleven for Wolves, but due to an injury to Pedro and a surprise change in formation, that’s exactly what happened. Willian would start with Mount behind Tammy Abraham in a 3-4-3 as an inverted winger.
Although an assist or a goal wasn’t contributed by Chelsea’s new number ten, his performance did raise a few eyebrows. A surging run, evading a challenge and a good cross was essential in the build-up to Chelsea’s third before half-time in a exhilarating 5-2 win. Three days later, Willian would start and impress again on a frustrating night at the Bridge as the Blues naivety was exploited by Valencia in the Champions League.
Willian would start against Liverpool and then against Brighton where he would finally net the second, ensuring Lampard would gain his first home league win of the season. An important goal at a vital time would cement him the in the starting lineup for Chelsea’s trip to Lille.
On the night of his 300th appearance, Willian’s continued inclusion would prove vital, volleying a Hudson-Odoi cross into the floor bewildering Mike Maignan in the Lille goal to give the Blues the goal that would see them claim their first triumph in the group stage.
In a post-match interview with a glowing Tammy Abraham, Willian would embrace the forward with a hug for his birthday as the two reflected on a crucial win on foreign soil.
“We deserved to win tonight and needed to win. We have been working hard everyday, every game..” Willian would tell BT Sport.
The senior heads within Lampard’s squad are playing an important role in the early months of the campaign and are required to take the mantle and show the way for their younger peers to follow.
Willian, Marcus Alonso, Captain Cesar Azpilicueta and newly-named Vice-Captain Jorginho are all key components within the current starting eleven and have all picked up performances since the start of September to Lampard’s glee as the next generation have taken centre stage.
The Brazilian started again at St. Mary’s to the right of a 4-2-3-1 formation, the same role he was given in 2013 under Mourinho. Although, Chelsea’s new pressing philosophy allows for a variety of players to pop up in a variety of positions.
Willian would subsequently find himself in the natural position of his given number, notably pressing ahead of Abraham moments before Angus Gunn lost possession for the Saints from a kick out, pounced on by Mason Mount.
Willian would be first to a loose header from Jan Bednarek ahead of former blue Oriol Romeu allowing Jorghino to caress the ball down, play it neatly back to Willian who would then execute the deadly pass to an onrushing Mason Mount who finished with ease, putting the Blues 2-0 up.
Willian’s all round game optimised the best elements of his game combining his natural flair with commendable work-rate.
It was unsurprising the stats backed up his output coming out top over the ninety minutes in tackles and duels, winning the most free kicks. Making 3 key passes, 2 big chances and having 2 shots on goal.
Willian was unfortunate to not come away with a second assist to his name when he nearly managed to return the favour to Hudson-Odoi who had created his previous two goals against Brighton and Lille.
Starting from near the halfway line to the right, not too far from his manager prowling across the touchline, Willian was a long way from goal.
A quick burst of acceleration drew the attention of Romeu, James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg who would all be left trailing in the winger’s wake, failing to dispossess him.
His pace then prompted an eager Bednerak to be dragged out of central defence, leaving fullback Yan Valery narrow and isolated, giving Willian an easy option to find Hudson-Odoi in space and through on goal.
Lampard was full of praise for Willian in the post-match press conference after such an impactful display.
” Willian was the standout one today, without a doubt for me. His work ethic off the ball, we talk to the wingers and what we want off the ball we can show them that video of what Willian did today. His quality, his bursts of pace, on the ball what he can do, the last four or five games I think he’s been our best player. And that’s a great thing to say when you’ve got players who are examples on the pitch around these young boys.”Frank Lampard
There are very few players that garner as much stick than Willian on social media. Whether you believe that criticism to be indicative of the majority view of match-going Chelsea fans who appreciate the hard yards the 31-year-old has put in, its down to personal opinion.
Willian might not be the future of Chelsea and may still prove to show the inconsistent form that has aggravated many, but in stepping up in key moments – his attitude has been precisely what Lampard would’ve craved from his wiser heads and can help the more naive sides of Chelsea’s game this season.
Over the summer, Willian announced he was releasing an online course on “How to become a Successful Footballer”. This sparked a lot of mockery from those who bemoan and dismiss his ability, but after being key components in 2 Premier League winning sides, picking up 2 Europa League titles, an FA and League Cup – plus a Copa America to go with 5 Ukrainian Titles, it’s fair to say there aren’t many better to listen to on the matter.
Willian looks far from ready to give up his spot to fresh blood at Stamford Bridge.
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