even years have passed since José Mourinho struggled to keep the smirk off his face as he held court in Chelsea’s press room, revelling in the chicanery of scuppering Tottenham’s bid to sign Willian. The late twist came out of the blue and Mourinho was at his mischievous best, suggesting Tottenham had paid the price for not doing Willian’s medical in secret.
Tottenham were livid. They had fought to beat Liverpool to the Brazilian’s signature and raged when it emerged the winger was heading for another part of London. After all did Chelsea even need him? They already had Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, Oscar, Andre Schürrle and Kevin De Bruyne to fill the creative roles. Why spend £32m on another attacking midfielder?
The answer soon materialised. Chelsea might have acted out of opportunism, sensing a chance to upstage their neighbours, but they did not sign Willian from Anzhi Makhachkala for the sake of it. He quickly became an important player for Mourinho and, although his inconsistency and disappointing set-piece delivery frustrated supporters at times, he helped Chelsea to win two Premier League titles, one FA Cup, one League Cup and the Europa League during his time in west London.
In the end the only disappointment is that Willian, who is close to joining Arsenal on a three-year deal, had to say goodbye in an Instagram post on Sunday afternoon. An achilles injury meant he missed Chelsea’s win against Wolves in their final league game, their defeat by Arsenal in the FA Cup final and their hammering by Bayern Munich in the last 16 of the Champions League on Saturday night, after which he became a free agent.
This has been coming, though. While Frank Lampard wanted Willian to stay, the 32-year-old could not convince the Chelsea hierarchy to offer him more than a two-year extension. Arsenal were prepared to offer him a three-year contract and, despite misgivings over the former Shakhtar Donetsk player’s age, they are securing a solid professional who rarely lets his managers down.
Willian is a coach’s player. While he has made vital contributions – a dramatic winner against Everton when Chelsea were closing in on the title in 2015 comes to mind – he is not flashy. He was part of the support act when Hazard was at Chelsea and has not always been a mandatory pick, especially when Antonio Conte was in charge from 2016 to 2018. Willian, who scored 63 goals in 339 appearances for Chelsea, was not at his happiest during Conte’s two years in charge and almost ended up joining Mourinho at Manchester United.
Yet Mourinho valued Willian’s tactical discipline and he has played a key role during Lampard’s first season as Chelsea’s manager. Lampard, who was teammates with him during the Brazil international’s first year in London, valued his workrate and the protection he offers his full-back.
Not that Willian, who was one of the few players to shine when it all went wrong under Mourinho in the 2015-16 season, has solely been a workhorse for Lampard. There have been some excellent individual displays, particularly when he scored twice in the 2-0 win against Tottenham in December, while 11 goals in all competitions is a decent return. Chelsea would not have qualified for the Champions League without him. “When I came in and we had a lot of issues in terms of younger players, Willian was one you relied on,” Lampard said last week.
Willian is a good trainer and his manager has urged young wingers such as Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic to learn from him. “He is not really vocal,” the Chelsea centre-back Antonio Rüdiger says. “But on the pitch he does his stuff. After training he is always shooting, trying to improve. As a young kid, it is an honour to train with someone like him.”
Yet while Lampard will hope that Hudson-Odoi and Pulisic were paying attention, perhaps now is the right time for Willian to leave. Although his ability to accelerate away from a defender will be missed, he was as culpable as anyone on the occasions when Chelsea ran out of ideas against deep defences this season. Fresh faces are required in attack and it is telling that Chelsea, sore after being dumped out of the last 16 of the Champions League by Bayern, did not want to go above and beyond to keep him.
The veteran wingers were absent against Bayern. Pedro, who has departed on a free transfer, was out with a shoulder injury and Willian was back in London. Regeneration is Chelsea’s task now. They have signed Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner, and are closing in on Bayer Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz. Willian belongs to the past, even if it was worth snatching him from Tottenham all those years ago.