Willian: Much ado about nothing?

Blog by: Karthik
The price of oil has been known to bestow good fortune on Chelsea over the last decade, but for the price of fertilizer to play a similar role is something new.

When potash giant Uralkali had a contract with a Belarusian firm cancelled, it wiped out a huge chunk of their share value; impacting, among others, Russian billionaire investor Suleiyman Kerimov. Left with no choice, he launched a fire sale at the football club he owned, Anzhi Makhachkala, drastically slashing the massive wages he paid his players and auctioning off the entire first team.

Willian (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

As the sale draws bidders from across Europe, no player has been discussed as frequently, or as expectantly, as Brazilian playmaker Willian. His potential arrival in the EPL has sparked a bidding war, gaining him plenty of attention before he even set foot on English soil. It is worth noting that Samuel Eto’o, who won the European treble with both Barcelona and Inter Milan, has received far less coverage in the English media – although he is headed to the same likely destination as Willian – Chelsea.

Willian has been targeted by Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspurs and Chelsea over the last one week – in that order. Chelsea won out, although it is fair to state that the player himself has been shown up as a mercenary. He was called for a medical by Spurs and, as he reached their training centre, he was notified of a bid by Chelsea. Willian underwent the medical anyhow – and then agreed terms with Chelsea. (He is yet to go for a medical there, though.)

So just how good is Willian? Given that three top 10 clubs – one of which plays in the Champions League, with the other two aspiring to reach there soon – have competed for his signing over the past few days, one would expect a high level of technical ability, or at least one strong domain.

His profile is solid, if unspectacular. Willian started his career at Corinthians in Brazil, winning the Copa Sao Paulo de Futebol Junior as a young teenager. He quickly graduated to the first team, where he came to the attention of Shakhtar Donetsk, a Ukrainian club known for acquiring the services of a large number of Brazilians (22 in the last ten years). He moved to Ukraine, where he embarked on a domestic treble-winning season with Shakhtar in 2008 (League, Cup and Ukrainian Super Cup).  In 2009 he won the UEFA Cup with them, his only major trophy outside Ukraine till date.

His personal statistics are underwhelming. Two caps with the Brazilian national side over as many years. In his club career, he has scored a total of 21 league goals, having never previously played in any of the Big Five leagues.

Playing in his favoured position on the left wing, Willian is an adept passer and can terrorise right-backs with his dribbling; although his defensive work-rate is questionable. But the Premier League is a far more physically demanding league than any he has played in till date. And at 25, he is hardly young. It is worth noting that not a single major Champions League club in continental Europe has shown any interest in Willian.

So why did these EPL clubs want to sign Willian? Simply put, because he was for sale and he meets an immediate requirement. Each team wants him for a different reason.

Daniel Alves (L) of Barcelona battles with Willian during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final 2nd Leg match between Shakhtar Donetsk and Barcelona at the Donbass Arena on April 12, 2011 in Donetsk, Ukraine. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

For Liverpool, his main utility was positional. His presence on the left would have allowed fellow Brazilian Philippe Coutinho to play centrally. Newly-acquired left-back Aly Cissokho is by no means a replacement, but his presence indicates that the club are willing to improvise rather than pay over the odds.

Chelsea hardly need Willian. Theirs is a midfield already crammed with playmakers, some of whom are the best for their position on the planet. This acquisition is more likely prompted by a desire to do damage to Spurs, who will soon lose Gareth Bale to Real Madrid.

Bale, a winger, was responsible for most of Spurs’ end product last season – particularly post-January – and Andre Villas Boas likely believed that a playmaker on the wings could go some distance in filling the gap caused by the Welshman’s departure. Spurs have bought several other midfielders – Nacer Chadli and Paulinho (another Brazilian, gah!) – but Chelsea’s undercutting tactics have left them fuming.

Indeed, Jose Mourinho has already fired a snide barb in Spurs’ direction, “That’s the danger of medicals before contracts. The best thing you can do is do the medical in secret.” Knowing Mourinho’s propensity to play mind games – and play them better than anyone else – the taunting is unlikely to cease any time soon. A knock-on effect has been the hilarious rumour that Willian’s arrival will cause Chelsea to sell Juan Mata, possibly the most influential midfielder in the EPL.

Willian, currently awaiting a work permit, is not on the same level as Mata. And he is hardly a marquee signing for any of these clubs – let there not be excessive optimism about his abilities.

Not getting him will affect Liverpool off the pitch more than on it; fans are baying for blood after seeing yet another midfield target slip out of their hands. Chelsea have a strong enough bench to see off most challenges in the Premier League, and getting Willian is a psychological victory over their London rivals. The one club that genuinely needs a player for Willian’s position will miss out on him, resulting in much brotherly love all around.

It will be interesting to see if Willian can live up to the hype that currently surrounds him in the Premier League. As of now, this story looks headed for a ‘shattering’ anti-climax.


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