Willian & Arsenal: How Mikel Arteta Could Use His Versatility at Number 10

Willian becomes the third Brazilian in Arsenal's ranks
Willian becomes the third Brazilian in Arsenal’s ranks | Buda Mendes/Getty Images

‘Be excited’, the cursed utterings of Josh Kroenke last summer when he had Arsenal fans poised to smash furiously on their keyboards in excitement over potential signings.

Nicolas Pepe came in for a record fee, followed by a few others. Who had the best summer transfer window? Arsenal, it had to be.

It didn’t pan out like that, at all. The signings lifted everyone, but Arsenal sank down the table.

Now, under new guidance in the dugout with a differing strategy in the boardroom, is it time for fans to ‘be excited’ again?

Does bringing in a 32-year-old Willian on a three-year deal constitute excitement? For Mikel Arteta it seems to be, as the Spaniard was glowing in his assessment of the Brazilian and insisted he’ll be a valuable asset to the club for the coming seasons.

On the surface it appears as if it’s just one of those not-to-be-missed signings. A winger with heaps of Premier League experience that didn’t command a transfer fee. No adjusting to the city or language. A fluid transition.

But it begs the question: ‘why more forwards? Arsenal need defenders’. Yes, yes they do, but they’re also starved of creativity from central areas. Indeed, central areas.

Willian has and always will be seen as right-winger from his time in England. He’s played almost exclusively in that position since he arrived at Stamford Bridge, but Arteta has his eye on a change of role for the experienced forward.

Operating as a number ten for the Gunners, or at least more centrally, was mooted, and has since been confirmed by Arteta after he put to paper. He said: “We had a clear intention to strengthen in the attacking midfielder and the winger positions [and] he is a player that gives us a lot of versatility, he can play in three or four different positions.”

The fact that he even mentioned the attacking midfielder slot first above all offers an intriguing glimpse into Willian’s Arsenal future. It’s no secret that Arteta would like to shift to a 4-3-3 setup when he has the right personnel, as the back three he set out for the final stretch of last season was an enforced adjustment.

It’s likely that we could see the Brazilian line up on either side of the forward three, but drift into inside slots to account for the overlaps Hector Bellerin or Kieran Tierney will be encouraged to make. It’s a role he’s familiar with from his time at Shakhtar Donetsk, having dabbled with the playmaker burden on a few occasions.

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Willian also played in a variety of positions during his time in Ukraine | ADRIAN DENNIS/Getty Images

Shall he line up in his favoured right side of the front three and move infield accordingly, then it does present an air of uncertainty over Pepe. His debut season didn’t match the heights his transfer fee suggested, but he improved as the season wore on and put in one of his finest displays for the club in the FA Cup final victory against his new teammate.

For a player seven years his senior, he is unlikely to be shunted onto the bench. Perhaps Arteta is expecting of an upturn in form from the Ivorian with genuine competition now challenging him for a starting berth.

Attacking midfield, however, is area of the pitch severely lacking in depth, if not quality, that looks like being adequately filled, for a season at least. Age will always factor into the discussion, yet, all the talk surrounding Willian prior to the move has been of glowing praise: a coach’s dream who trains well and works hard.

Arteta’s ‘non-negotiables’ have been well documented. Players have fallen foul to his regime and not adhered to the new regulations already, but there will be no such concerns with their new addition. Work rate and desire were factored in highly when pursuing the former Chelsea man. He is a model professional who takes care of his fitness.

Tactically he is adjustable, which fits nicely into the mould of player Arteta wants. Whether he will be hugging the touchline or completely revamp his style to find space in between the lines centrally, his discipline allows him to manage situations accordingly and read the phases of attack. He is very much an Arteta player.

How frequently he’ll be used for the 2020/21 campaign will be an interesting subplot to the main goal of securing a top four berth. In many ways, signing Willian may simply be an expensive – dramatic – roll of the dice to play Champions League football. For Arsenal, they cannot sustain their financial situation, nor entice new signings with the Europa League. In the sake of the club’s future, it has to be achieved.

By adding an experienced Premier League player who knows all the ins and outs of the division, Arteta will feel he’s boosted those chances. As a mentor to the younger players, depth in forward areas and the creative spark that had been lacking considerably last term, they look better placed.

Hate it or love it, the signing has been made and the cheques signed off. How much impact he has on the club’s goals only time will tell, but he offers the versatility and creativity that Arteta wants, all without a transfer fee. We’ll brush over the signing on fee and fat wage packet.

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