Chelsea FC: Willian is the benchmark for a top-level squad player

Every club has a Willian. Often berated by his own fans, and admired from afar, the Brazilian splits opinion.

His moments of flair and highlight-reel longshots have people in awe, but he is still not a regular starter at Chelsea.

No player with over 500 minutes has better expected assists per 90 for Chelsea in the Premier League than Willian. He has the same expected goals per 90 as Leroy Sane, and better than Christian Eriksen.

The table below shows the company Willian keeps when it comes to non-penalty xG per 90 plus xA.

Player NPxGP90 + xA90
Christian Eriksen 0.55
Willian 0.53
Eden Hazard 0.52
Riyad Mahrez 0.44
Wilfried Zaha 0.43
Juan Mata 0.38

Willian’s high numbers might be because of a smaller sample size (he has played just 1232 minutes compared to Eriksen’s 2249). Though that also reflects his role in the side. The former Shakhtar forward has appeared from the bench as often as he has started in the league this season.

In part, that’s because Chelsea have flipped between 3-4-3 and 3-5-2. But, even when Antonio Conte opts for the three-man frontline, Pedro is usually favoured. The Spaniard was superb last season, yet his productivity is way down this term.

Pedro offers something completely different to Willian. He is supposedly more of a goal threat, less involved in the build-up, and will make more runs beyond the main striker. This season, though, they are both on four Premier League goals. Pedro’s NPxGP90 + xA90 is 0.36.

Willian’s fluctuating form contributes to his lack of starts as much as anything else.

There are matches where he can do little right, and others – like the Champions League clash with Barcelona – where he does no wrong. Those players are exciting and frustrating, but Willian’s defensive work means he is never a liability.

That inconsistency makes him a fantastic option from the bench, however.

His energy is irrepressible, when combined with one of those top form days, Willian is a fearsome piece to play in the last 30 minutes, a game-winner. And, even though he has started over 30 league matches just once in his Chelsea career, he is apparently content.

As a twelfth or thirteenth man in a squad competing on multiple fronts, the Brazilian is ideal. Whether playing on the break or trying to unpick a tight defence, Willian can contribute. Just as he can from the wing or as a third central-midfielder.

Depth is spoken about a lot for clubs competing in Europe.

A player who can play a number of roles from the start or off the bench, while having the talent to win matches, is invaluable. Willian shone against Hull and Barcelona within a matter of days. That reflects the life of the elite squad player.

Rather than being the star given the rest, Willian is the relief for Hazard. Yet, when the biggest matches come around, he still has a key role to play. There is no match too big or too small for players like Willian.

Sure, he will continue to split opinion. There will be some who think he is not good enough to start regularly, and others who focus on those magical nights like Tuesday at Stamford Bridge.

Having players as influential as Willian and content with this half-starter, half-backup role is vital. He is easy to take for granted, but – if Chelsea were interested in selling – there is no doubt that many of the top clubs across Europe would be interested.

For a team to have a serious chance of winning trophies, the Willian equivalent is every bit as important as the Hazard equivalent.


Written by Sam Cox

Follow Sam on Twitter @SamRCox_

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