Has Willian been that bad at Arsenal? How the under-fire attacker compares to Saka & Smith Rowe

Willian Arsenal
The attacker joined the Gunners from Chelsea in the summer, but things have not gone well since his move to Emirates Stadium

It was billed as a no-risk transfer.

When Arsenal signed Willian in the summer, it was done in the belief that the experienced Brazilian would hit the ground running and make an immediate impact at the Emirates.

He’d spent seven years in England with Chelsea, winning two league titles along the way, and he was settled in London.

And while some supporters were wary of handing a three-year contract to a player who had just turned 32, the fact that Willian was expected to slot straight into the Arsenal set-up without any need to adjust to the pace of the Premier League reassured many of the sceptics.

But wind the clock forward a few months and what was billed as a sure thing has been an unexpected disaster.

Willian has made 25 appearances in all competitions this season and has yet to score a single goal. In those appearances, he has contributed just three assists, with two of those coming in the 3-0 win at Fulham on the opening weekend of the campaign.

There is still time for Willian to turn things around at Arsenal, but it is looking increasingly difficult, given just how unpopular he has become with the club’s fans.

You often see players described as ‘divisive figures’ within football. Granit Xhaka is the perfect example of that at Arsenal and Mesut Ozil was another.

Both have been targets for abuse, but they also have loyal supporters willing to back them to the hilt. Willian, though, has no such support group.

Indeed, he has seemingly managed to unify Arsenal supporters against him, with the overwhelming majority of fans believing he should be nowhere near the starting XI.

Such is their dislike for the former Chelsea man, that social media goes into a frenzy whenever he gets near the pitch. Off it, fake, scathing reviews of his London-based restaurant have even been left on review sites online.

“I don't say it's unfair because with Willy the expectation is really high in terms of the goals he can score and the assists he can create,” Mikel Arteta said this week. "You expect him to be in the starting line-up, so it's normal that people write things about him.”

Willian Arsenal

Last weekend’s victory against Leeds United produced a prime example of the ill-feeling towards Willian.

Arsenal were excellent against Marcelo Bielsa’s side and claimed an exciting 4-2 victory which included some fabulous football – particularly in the opening 47 minutes, when they raced into a 4-0 lead.

Judging by the reaction on social media, however, some supporters were so outraged by Arteta sending on Willian rather than Gabriel Martinelli as a second-half substitute that they couldn’t even enjoy their side picking up three valuable points.

“I know I'm far away from being at my best, but I'm determined to work hard and change this,” Willian admitted during an interview with the Arsenal matchday programme last month.

“The first game was great for me, against Fulham, I felt I had a good performance and gave two assists. And then, I don't know. I'm always trying to do my best, sometimes things don't go the way you want. You have to say it's a part of football and a part of life.”

There’s no doubt that Willian has failed to live up to the hype since he made the switch from Stamford Bridge to Emirates Stadium in the summer, but has he really been that bad?

Of his 25 appearances in all competitions this season, he has started 15. He averages 1.3 shots per 90 minutes, which is more than Emile Smith Rowe (0.9), but less than Nicolas Pepe (3) and Bukayo Saka (2).

Willian’s lack of goals is clearly a major problem, especially when you consider he found the net 11 times last season for Chelsea. But his three assists have him level with Pepe and ahead of Smith Rowe (2), although the latter has made nine fewer appearances than the Brazil international in all competitions since the start of the campaign.

On average, Willian has created 1.8 chances for his team-mates per 90 minutes, a figure that puts him ahead of Saka (1.2) and Smith Rowe (1.7), and he averages 39.7 successful passes per 90 minutes – that’s more than Saka (27), Pepe (28.5) and Smith Rowe (39.4).

Clearly, that last statistic could be an indicator that Willian is not taking as many risks as those operating in similar positions, opting to play an easy pass rather than one that could lead to Arsenal losing possession.

However, other than his failure to score a single goal this season, his numbers are not awful in comparison to others.

Willian Arsenal

Yet he has become the whipping boy, the player who takes the blame should things not go Arsenal’s way. It’s a major problem for Arsenal and for Arteta, who worked so hard in the summer to convince Willian to make the move across the capital.

“We have to protect him,” the Spaniard stated. “We have to support him as much as we can because he deserves it from the way he handles his profession and the way he is with us.

“What he's doing at the moment, the way he's training, the way he's working, the way he's willing to give everything to the team is what I demand.

“Whether he's more successful or less successful in the game is another matter. It will come with the quality that he has, but this is what I demand from every player.

“A full commitment and to put the passion and everything they have in every training session and when they have the opportunity to play. So far, Willian has done that every single day.”

Arsenal host Manchester City on Sunday afternoon and with the crucial Europa League last-32 second leg against Benfica looming large, Arteta is expected to make several changes from the side that drew 1-1 with the Portuguese champions in Rome on Thursday night.

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Pepe and Martinelli could come in for Saka and Smith Rowe, but it will be interesting to see whether Willian gets the nod at No.10 in place of Martin Odegaard, who has started both of Arsenal’s last two games and has made an immediate impact following his loan move from Real Madrid.

Arteta is well aware of the hostility currently being aimed at the experienced Brazilian, but knows that the only way the former Chelsea man will win over the fans is by delivering on the pitch.

Publicly, the manager will continue to back his player, but the onus is now on Willian to start showing why he was given such a lengthy and lucrative contract, because, right now, Arsenal's no-risk transfer is looking like a costly mistake.