Ozil out, Willian in: Arsenal boss Arteta has found his new creative spark

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Willian Arsenal 2020-21
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The Brazil international got his Gunners career off to the perfect start with two assists as Mikel Arteta's side beat Fulham 3-0 at Craven Cottage

It was as good a debut as any Arsenal fan had seen in a long time.

Willian was thrown straight into the starting XI against Fulham last weekend and looked like he had been part of the furniture for years as he inspired his new side to an opening day 3-0 success.

The Brazil International picked up two assists and had a major hand in the other goal, seeing his shot saved before Alexandre Lacazette swept in the rebound to break the deadlock early on.

Willian also hit the post with a fine free-kick, made three key passes and finished with a passing accuracy rate of 96.2 per cent, having completed 25 of his 26 passes before he was replaced by Nicolas Pepe after 75 minutes.

No wonder his manager was impressed. “He showed how much he really wants it and how much he is going to drive the other players on,” said Mikel Arteta.

“I think he was great, he was decisive and that is what we are looking for him to do in a consistent way. He is a player with tremendous quality and knows the league really well, and we knew he wasn't going to need a lot of time to adapt to our way of playing."

Willian’s arrival on a free transfer from Chelsea last month generated plenty of headlines.

Many scoffed at the idea of giving the 32-year-old a three-year deal and pointed to the problems Arsenal have had with Mesut Ozil since he was handed his money-spinning contract in 2018.

But Arteta never had any doubts. He knew the type of player he was bringing in and his age was of no concern.

"I believe he's a player that can really make a difference for us,” said the Spaniard.

“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."

Willian Arteta

When asked what attracted him to Willian, Arteta added: "It is many of his qualities [that appeal]. One is his ability to play in those tight spaces, his ability to play people through, to unlock, to drive with the ball and create overloads - he is a goal threat as well both in open play and with set pieces. 

"Again, it is the character that I want, the kind of player that when things get difficult in the game that wants to take responsibility, wants the ball and wants to win the game for the team. I think it is going to be a really good lift for all the players as well in terms of the quality we are bringing to the squad."

There is no doubt that Arsenal have missed a creative spark in their attacking areas for quite some time now.

Since arriving in 2013, Ozil has always been Arsenal’s main creative hub, but there have also been players like Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey to unlock things for the strikers.

But in the past two seasons that creativity has dried up due to players leaving the club and Ozil’s dramatic downturn in numbers - both in terms of assists and appearances.

Despite the German’s highly publicised struggles last season, however, he still created 1.4 chances per 90 minutes, more than any other Arsenal player. That in itself showed the clear need for Arteta to add some creativity during the summer.

And the capture of Willian certainly does that. Last season he scored 11 goals and provided nine assists for Chelsea, creating an average of 1.7 chances per game for his team-mates at Stamford Bridge.

And going by what we saw at Craven Cottage last weekend, that form has rolled over to the current campaign.

The fact that he knows the English game and is settled in London is a major bonus - as is the fact he already has close friends within the Arsenal dressing room. There was no period of acclimatisation required for the two-time Premier League winner.

Willian Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang Arsenal 2020-21 GFX

On Saturday night he will make his home debut for the Gunners when they host West Ham at Emirates Stadium.

Willian is expected to once again line up on the right of a front three which will also feature Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

With the 3-4-3 formation that Arteta has settled on for now, the classic No.10 role has become defunct, which is perhaps another reason why Ozil has found himself at home with his feet up on a match day in recent months.

Willian offers a threat from out wide, as we saw when he swung in four crosses during the win against Fulham, but also from the central areas when he cuts inside to link up with the strikers.

The Brazilian isn’t one who will hug the touchline and leave the forwards isolated, he will drift centrally and drive into the box, creating chances for others and offering a genuine goal threat himself.

Arsenal have been crying out for a player like him to help fill the void Ozil’s absence and decline in numbers has created. Henrikh Mkhitaryan failed to fill it following his move from Manchester United, but Arteta will now hope that Willian proves to be the right man.

He got off to the perfect start at Fulham and will now be looking to back that performance up over a series of games in the coming weeks, a sequence which features trips to Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United.

Despite being fully fit again and training regularly, it looks unlikely that Ozil will be back any time soon, so others need to step up to the plate and make things happen for Arsenal, especially when they come up against teams who will look to sit deep and take away the threat that Arteta’s side possess on the counter attack.

Last season they struggled to find a way through packed defences, but with Willian in the side, they may now have the key they need to unlock the door.

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