Willian: What's gone wrong at Arsenal?
Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal - Premier League

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06: Willian of Arsenal in action during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on December 6, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. A limited number of fans are welcomed back to stadiums to watch elite football across England. This was following easing of restrictions on spectators in tiers one and two areas only. (Photo by Visionhaus)

Since joining on a free transfer, Willian Borges has struggled to make a meaningful impact in the famous red and white of Arsenal, despite bagging two assists on his debut against Fulham.

So what is behind the form of the Brazilian who was once one of the Premier League’s most influential wide-men?

A ‘short-term fix’

Willian’s summer switch from West to North London was met with a mixed reception from the media and the Arsenal fanbase alike.

Optimistic fans believed that the Brazilian’s experience of winning major trophies could add something to a squad which has struggled to compete for league titles in recent years.

The common narrative surrounding the deal at the time was that it was ‘better than signing nobody’, which was the alternative for the cash-strapped Gunners.

However, sceptics bemoaned the transfer, arguing that his arrival would block the path to the first team for a number of promising talents like Reiss Nelson, Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith-Rowe.

To date, this has proven to be the case. The ex-Chelsea star has accumulated over 1100 minutes of first team action this campaign, more than Nelson, Martinelli and Smith-Rowe combined.

This suggests that the sceptics may have a point: that Willian’s signing represents short-term thinking. This contradicts the youthful direction that the North London club are trying to take under Mikel Arteta.

An expensive 'free' transfer

Due to the club’s well documented financial struggles, free transfers represent an appealing option to the Arsenal board when dipping into the market.

However, despite the lack of a transfer fee, bringing Willian to the Emirates represents a significant financial investment for the club.

According to The Mirror, he is the fourth top earner at the club on £192,300 per week, and has two and a half years remaining on his three year contract.  

The length of this contract is particularly concerning for Arsenal, and is reportedly the reason he left Chelsea (who were only willing to offer him a 2 year deal).

This has led Arsenal fans to question whether Willian moved to Arsenal for one last payday, and whether he can match the hunger and desire of his younger teammates.

If he sees out the length of the contract, the Arsenal will be in a situation where they are paying a 34 year old almost £200,000 a week. This is not sustainable for a club who are not playing regular Champions League football.

A player past his best?

If Willian were impressing on the pitch, there would be little talk about this lucrative contract. However, he has so far flattered to deceive.

Brought in primarily to add creativity to Arsenal’s attack, the ex-Chelsea man looks a shadow of his former self, with the majority of his key statistics down on those he has produced in recent years.

In 13 league appearances, Willian has managed a mere three assists, and is yet to find the back of the net. By comparison, Smith-Rowe has recently burst onto the scene with an impressive 2 assists in 3 games.

The Brazilian has offered Arteta’s side something of a creative outlet, producing 5 ‘big chances’ for his teammates in the Premier League (the most of any Arsenal player). However, this statistic ranks a middling 13th in the Premier League (tied with Burnley’s Ashley Westwood).

The fact that Smith-Rowe has created 1 ‘big chance’ in his 3 appearances suggests that he is capable of replacing this output going forward.

At only 20 years of age, he has the chance to develop into a consistent Premier League star of the future, something Willian cannot promise.  

Is there a way back for Willian?

After starting 12 of the first 14 Premier League games this season, Willian was not included in the squad for the victories against Chelsea and Brighton.

A comfortable 4-0 win against West Brom followed, with Willian making a late 20 minute cameo on the right wing. However, he again failed to impress, with young stars Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney grabbing the headlines.

Looking to the future, it seems that Willian will have to fight hard to regain his place in the first team. This will be no mean feat, but with Arsenal still in the Europa League and the FA Cup, there will be plenty of opportunities for him to stake his claim.