Willian Borges da Silva looks set to leave Chelsea this summer after a very successful seven year spell that has seen him help the Blues to two Premier League titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup and a Europa League success. He has played a key role over his time at club and scored 63 goals under five different managers.
He has been linked with a number of clubs who seem prepared to offer him the three year contract he desires, something Chelsea have failed to do so far. The Blues have offered the Brazilian, who turns 32 in a matter of days, a two year contract on improved terms but that offer has not been accepted.
One of the clubs most strongly linked in the last few weeks has been Chelsea’s FA Cup final conquerors, and London rivals, Arsenal. Arsenal are coming off an up and down season that saw them sack Unai Emery and replace him with Mikel Arteta, finish in their lowest league position since the 1994/95 season that is most infamous for George Graham’s departure from the North London giants.
The FA Cup victory brought a happy end to a troubled season but it shouldn’t paper over the cracks. Arsenal are entering a rebuild and need to look to the future and make smart, long term signings.
There financial situation isn’t particularly good at the moment, and news has broken that they intend to make 55 employees redundant as they attempt to combat the effects of Covid-19, the overspending in the summer of 2019 and the prospect of a fourth consecutive season without Champions League football.
It’s not just the 2019 summer transfers that have left Arsenal in the situation they are in. Dating back to Arsene Wenger’s last few seasons at the club, they have been making bad decisions in the transfer market and in terms of contract extensions.
The likes of Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis have proven to be expensive mistakes. Others like club record signing Nicolas Pepe and Alexander Lacazette have failed to justify their large fees, despite both showing flashes of the talent that pushed Arsenal to sign them.
And then there’s Mesut Ozil. Unable to break into the first team, often not even making the bench, all while earning a reported £350k per week. Ozil has suitors, there are plenty of clubs in Germany, Turkey, America and Spain who would love to have him. But his wages are a problem, those clubs won’t match his current salary and he seems content to see out the last year of his deal and collect his money. He’s won a World Cup, a league title and a bunch of domestic cups. He’s got his medals, he wants his money now. That’s his right. It’s not his fault Arsenal gave him that massive contract when they could have sold him and gotten good money. It was their mistake, and now they are paying for it.
It has been reported, and confirmed by Arteta himself, that they will be working to a tight budget this summer. William Saliba is set to arrive following a loan spell at Saint-Etienne which was agreed as part of the deal that saw him sign for Arsenal last summer. It also looks like Dani Ceballos might extend his loan from Real Madrid for a second season.
But Arsenal still have other needs, in defence and midfield. They will have to get creative in the market, as they did last summer with the Pepe and Saliba deals, and find ways to add quality players who won’t cost a massive amount in terms of upfront money this summer.
Enter Willian. A free agent, the only initial outlay on him would be a signing on fee that would likely be equal to his annual salary. Reports on the offered salary range from £120k per week to £200k per week. That means the signing on fee would range from £6million to £10million.
Willian is obviously a very good player, coming off another good season for a Chelsea team that finished 4th in their first year under Frank Lampard. He’s a player that has a lot to offer in terms of his creativity, his work rate, his versatility and his goal return. But is he the right player for Arsenal?
Former Gunners midfielder Perry Groves thinks so. Groves said on Talksport that Willian is “better than Pepe” and that signing him is a “no brainer”. On the face of it, there’s not much to argue with. Willian is currently a better player than Pepe. But is the signing a no brainer? I’m not so sure.
Under Arteta, Arsenal have largely played either 3-4-3 or 4-3-3. In both of those formations Willian would have to play in the front 3. That’s fine. Pop Willian into the team on the right hand side in place of Pepe. Does that improve Arsenal in the short term? Yes, most likely. But that’s quite a blinkered view to take.
Does Willian move the needle enough to lift Arsenal into the top 4? Highly unlikely. Is it worth giving up on Pepe, after only one season and a club record transfer fee to get a marginal improvement that doesn’t accomplish the goals of the club? No. It’s not.
Willian had 9 goals and 7 assists in the Premier League last season. Pepe had 5 goals and 6 assists in fewer minutes despite not truly finding his best form. A comparison from one-versus-one.com shows quite a lot of similarities between the players, and while it does favour Willian, the gulf is not enough to convince me that replacing a 25 year old Pepe with a 32 year old Willian is a good move long term, or even a good short term move. Pepe hasn’t entered his prime years yet and looks likely to improve significantly over the next two to three seasons, Willian is exiting his prime years and likely to decline over the next couple of seasons.
A steep decline could leave Arsenal with another albatross contract on their books, something they will surely want to avoid once the rid themselves of Ozil. It appears that they’re about to commit to a big money, long term extension with Aubameyang as well and they really shouldn’t want to position themselves in place that sees them paying huge money to two players in their mid 30s in a couple of years.
Pepe’s two seasons with Lille saw him score 14 and 23 goals. Willian has never scored more than 13 in a season, and while the Premier League is obviously a big step up from Ligue 1, Willian spent a number of years in the Ukrainian Premier League and never managed more than 8 goals in a season. Pepe has shown the ability to score and create goals at a high level, and in a settled front 3 next season you would feel confident that Pepe-Lacazette-Aubameyang could potentially bag 70 goals between them in all competitions.
Add to that, Arsenal have excellent young attackers in Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah and Gabriel Martinelli, all of whom factor to lose minutes in Willian arrives. Arsenal have already suffered massively from their decisions to buy ageing players rather than trust their own academy players over the last half decade. Players like Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Ismael Bennacur, Donyell Malen and of course Serge Gnabry have slipped through their grasp in the last few years.
Reine-Adelaide and Bennacur would both start for this team, Malen is a massive prospect and Gnabry has become one of the best attacking players in the world. Arsenal received paltry sums for them all, according to Transfermarkt those players have a combined value of over £120million pounds now, and I think that’s a conservative estimate.
Arsenal should not risk Martinelli, Nketiah or Nelson going elsewhere due to the frustrations of not getting game time, just to get a couple of good years from a player who won’t bridge the gap to a Champions League return.
Willian is a fine player but he’s not what Arsenal require right now. They need to be planning long term, settling on a system and style of play, re-establishing their identity and building around their existing talents. Willian might help them finish 6th next year, but they are more than capable of doing that without him.
In a 3-4-3, Arsenal can count on Saliba and Tierney to fill two of the central defensive roles. Another starter is needed without question. They can count on Mari, Luiz and one of Holding or Chambers as depth options. Mustafi, Sokratis and Holding or Chambers can be sold to raise funds.
Bellerin and Saka are the ideal wingbacks to play the way Arteta seems intent on playing, and Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac are able deputies.
In central midfield, Lucas Torreira needs more opportunities but he is a very good player. Joe Willock is a capable squad player and if they can keep Ceballos for another season they only need one more body in the middle of the park. Admittedly it would need to be a starter quality player who can win the ball and drive the team forward, and those types of players are rare and expensive, but it’s a clear need. Granit Xhaka should be finding his way out the door. He and Guendouzi don’t offer nearly enough on the pitch to make up for the negatives they bring, both should be sold to raise funds.
In attack, they are set. They have a world class player in Aubameyang, and two very good players in Lacazette and Pepe who should be better next season. Plus the three young options.
An upgrade in goal would help but can wait another season, Leno and Martinez are nobodies idea of top four goalkeepers but should be enough to get back into the top 6.
Four starters over the next two summers, a central midfielder and a central defender this summer, and a central midfielder to replace Ceballos and a goalkeeper next summer, and Arsenal could have a real team to shout about. Even with the tightened finances, it’s manageable over two years if they are smart.
The path is there, they should avoid short cuts and detours. They need to find buyers for the players who don’t factor into the long term planning, even if that means taking lower sums than they might desire, and use whatever money can be raised from sales on players who can be part of this team for next four to five years.
It’s been reported that many of Arsenal’s prominent recruitment staff are among those being made redundant and that the Gunners are going to “agent based recruitment”. This seems potentially disastrous.
It works fine at clubs like Wolves. Smaller clubs with big investment. A relationship with a Jorge Mendes is beneficial to them, especially as they continually spend within their means. It’s not something that big clubs with limited finances. and a lack of strong ownership, should be doing.
It’s apparently being pushed by Raul Sanllehi, Arsenal’s Head of Football. Sanllehi was one of the chief decision makers at Barcelona for over a decade. A decade in which they had fantastic success, but also a decade in which their transfer record was generally quite poor. Their record in his last few years there, when he had far more control over decisions, was a disaster with far more misses than hits.
His lasting legacy at Barcelona is the colossal debt and ridiculous wage bill they now find themselves weighed under. Some people might be willing to trade a long term mess for short term success, but be reminded that the core players for most during their glorious run, Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets, Pique, Puyol and Messi, were all academy graduates and the primary reason for that success.
Despite their great academy, Arsenal do not have a Messi.
If Raul gets his way, they may very well end up with a big mess.