He’s Chelsea’s top scorer this season, and few will argue that he’s also been their best player. Whether it’s his tireless running or dramatic free-kicks, Willian has been a shining light in an otherwise gloomy campaign for the Champions. So why does he need to improve you ask?
Well, if you take a step back for a second you’ll recognise that despite his newfound hero-status at Stamford Bridge, Willian’s levels of performance have barely changed since last season, or indeed the season before that. His gladiatorial work-ethic and lightning-fast runs forward are nothing new. The suggestion that Willian has upped his game significantly is a naive one, because arguably he’s been the most consistent performer in the Premier League over the last two and half seasons, always giving his all, always producing reasonable results – hence Mourinho’s persistence with him over the likes of Juan Mata, Kevin De Bruyne, Andre Schurrle, Oscar and lately, Pedro. Reasonable, but far from exceptional. You might describe him as Chelsea’s Mr Reliable.
The only thing that’s changed is that the performance levels of everyone around him have dropped, dramatically. Willian, unlike Chelsea’s other attacking options has maintained the form which saw him feature in 36 out of the Blues’ 38 league matches last year. The misfortunes (or failings) of Eden Hazard, of Diego Costa and of Cesc Fàbregas this season have been well documented, so Willian stands out as Chelsea’s only functioning attacking threat.
For him to maintain top form whilst those around him are falling apart, Willian deserves great credit, but you shouldn’t mistake that for an improvement in form. He’s outshining everyone else only because he hasn’t any competition in the Chelsea side at the moment.
Of course, the other thing that’s changed is that he’s scored six times already. A fabulous achievement for a midfielder made even better by the fact that they’ve all been magnificent free-kicks – nothing beats a great free-kick, right?
Well… it’s difficult to argue against someone with such a fine free-kick record as Willian’s (10 taken, 6 scored – something Cristiano could only dream of) but despite this welcome addition to the Brazilian’s arsenal, what he really needs to add to his game is goals from open play.
Since joining Chelsea from Eastern Europe, Willian’s goals per season have halved. Perhaps shackled somewhat by Mourinho’s pragmatic style, some of the freedom which was afforded to him at Shakhtar Donetsk may no longer be there, but such is Willian’s shooting ability and technique (demonstrated by his free-kicks), such is his pace and his ability on the ball, that the former Anzhi man really ought to be scoring more than he currently is.
Free-kicks are all well and good, but you can’t rely on them for goals forever, and at the moment, Chelsea are doing just that. Incredibly, just five of the Blues’ last 20 goals have been scored from open play. Just five, which is a run that stretches all the way back to September.
Chelsea’s problems have been mounting all season, and what they need from their top performer is a way of righting the wrongs. While Willian’s goals have at times been something of a God-send for the Champions, he needs to start producing where it matters, in open play.
Willian played 36 times in Chelsea’s title winning season last year, only scoring twice. He’s been Chelsea’s best and most consistent performer this season, yet he hasn’t a single goal from open play to show for it. This is where Willian needs to step up.
Teams are at their best when they have goals coming from all over the pitch and part of Chelsea’s problem is they over-rely on Hazard and Costa, and as we’ve seen, troubles arise when one (or both) of them hits a rough patch. Oscar and Willian in particular are two players who should be looking at 10 goals a season at least. Ditch the selflessness, ditch the pragmatism and ditch the poor scoring records. Because no matter how many free-kicks Willian scores, Chelsea won’t fix their problems. They need more from their most consistent performer.
Willian is seen as Mr Reliable, but he needs to become Mr Ruthless instead. With almost all of his teammates struggling for confidence and form, he needs to take it upon himself to take whole matches by the scruff of the neck, not just set pieces.
Willian deserves enormous credit for developing what is quickly becoming one of the most feared free-kicks in Europe, but this development demonstrates how he can step up his overall game too. Adding ruthlessness, selfishness and above all goals to his game, is a big must. All it takes is a bit of practice, but if Chelsea’s afroed hero can make the Champions a threat from open play again, their rejuvenation might come a lot sooner than expected.