Mourinho man Oscar has been cast aside in recent weeks, while his compatriot's industry has ensured he's a mainstay. But there's only so far that will get him, writes Michael Cox...
A few months ago, Chelsea were being widely praised for their consistent ability to sell unwanted players for inflated fees – but, as Jose Mourinho’s side have declined in the second half of the Premier League season, it’s notable that some of their former players are playing extremely well elsewhere.
Kevin De Bruyne, for example, is starring for Wolfsburg and has a genuine chance of being named the Bundesliga player of the season, while Juan Mata’s match-winning performance at Liverpool underlined his star quality. A more recent departure, Mohamed Salah, has been outstanding on the break for Fiorentina, having moved there as part of the deal which brought Juan Cuadrado to Stamford Bridge.
The natural position for those three in Mourinho’s Chelsea side was on the right of midfield – and there, Chelsea have been fielding a much less productive player.
With Cuadrado yet to make his mark – next season might be his time to shine – it’s another South American, Willian, who continues to be selected. Indeed, you might be surprised to learn that the Brazilian has played a part in 28 of Chelsea’s 29 league matches this season.
Diligent, not deadly
Willian is clearly a very useful footballer, and is particularly dangerous on the counter-attack. Whereas Eden Hazard’s speed is most notable over a couple of yards, and Ramires is famed for his ability to keep running for long periods, Willian is somewhere between – making a high number of long, high-speed runs.
Mourinho has always liked this from his wingers, of course, partly because his sides generally play on the counter-attack. Willian excels at transitions, both from defence to attack, and from attack to defence – getting back into position is also a key feature of Mourinho’s wide players. In the 1-1 draw against Southampton recently, he got into a position to make tackles and often recovered the ball.
His running is usually very unselfish – for example, he made a good off-the-ball run for Brazil in last weekend’s 1-0 friendly victory over Chile, creating the space for Roberto Firmino to score.
Willian’s problem, however, is that he’s frequently underwhelming in the final third. His ‘chances created’ stat is particularly poor. The likes of David Silva and Cesc Fabregas create 3 per game, Santi Cazorla and Christian Eriksen are on 2.5, with Steven Gerrard and Bojan Krkic around 2.
But Willian’s figure is down at 1.6, among names like Steven Davis and Marc Albrighton. What does offer some comfort, however, is that another player on 1.6 is his Chelsea and Brazil team-mate, Oscar. While Oscar has fallen out of favour, Willian remains in the side.
The secret, of course, is about balance. While the likes of Fabregas and Hazard rack up incredible assist statistics, other players in the Chelsea side are charged with providing the other qualities required: hard work, tackling, positional discipline. Mourinho knows Mata, De Bruyne and Salah are more creative, but that’s not necessarily what he desires on the opposite flank to Hazard, who is given license to stay upfield.
Compare Hazard and Willian’s display in the 5-3 defeat to Spurs, and the difference is clear.
Room for Juan more
Even then, should we be expecting more from Willian? As well as meagre creation statistics, he’s managed just two league goals this season – a tap-in against Aston Villa and a deflected winner at home to Everton.
The lack of goals has been a constant throughout his career – he has never managed more than five in a campaign, despite spending his European career at title challengers Shakhtar Donestk and Chelsea.
Maybe this is why Mourinho was keen to bring in Cuadrado. The Colombian is also energetic and good defensively having often played as a wing-back at Fiorentina, but offers more in the final third. He hit 11 Serie A goals last season, and from his brief appearances at Chelsea he’s created chances regularly too.
Willian, though, will remain a useful player – especially if Oscar’s career continues to stall. While it’s difficult to see Willian commanding a place at Arsenal or Manchester City, where creativity is valued more than discipline, he’s the right type of player for a functional role in a Mourinho side.