Willian is becoming the newest figure of hate for some Arsenal fans. Why they always need to have a player to hurl abuse at is mystifying, but it has something that has happened for decades.
I have always thought that at least when they are getting angry at Willian online or I the stands, at least it stops the blokes taking out their anger on their misses.
The Willian saga is one which the narrative on the season will look back on.
Why did we sign him? Why did we offer him so much money? And such a long contract? And why does Mikel Arteta play him so much?
Well all of those questions are for another blog, another day. I am only going to talk about his appearance versus Leeds United on Sunday and the logic behind Arteta bringing him on.
Firstly let’s bust a myth.
Myth: Arsenal were 4-0 up and cruising before bringing Willian on. We then conceded 2 goals
Truth: Willian actually came on between Leeds United’s first and 2nd goal; and he certainly could not be blamed for the Yorkshire sides second which came down our right hand side. Willian was playing on the left.
So why did Arteta opt for Willian ahead of Nicolas Pepe and Gabriel Martinelli?
The answer is simple: control.
At 4-0 (when Willian would have been sent to warm up), the game was over, Leeds beaten, demoralised.
Usually in these situations the team leading would end up coasting to the final whistle with about 70% possession, just knocking it about, controlling the game.
The opposition, knowing they will not win, batten down the hatches, do not send men forward like they would at 1 or 2-nil. Defend deep, do not get embarrassed.
The likes of Pepe and Martinelli need space to play in. To run in behind. Both would have been perfect substitutes if the margin was not a 4 (and then 3) goal one.
At a 2 goal margin Leeds would still be motivated to attack, so Arsenal would look to sit deep and hit them on the counter.
But a 3 or 4 goal margin, we are in the previous scenario of Arsenal controlling the game.
And like Willian or not, he is a better passer than both Pepe and Martinelli.
Do not believe me? Let’s look at the statistics:
The fact is, ball retention is Martinelli and Pepe’s weakest asset.
Not only are they the worst of the midfielders for keeping hold of the ball, but when it comes to pass completion ratio, they rank 25th and 27th out of 29. Only keeper Runar Alex Runarsson is worse than the pair, with Cedric Soares splitting them.
So if you want to see a game out, to control the game, to not give away the ball, you do not bring on Martinelli or Pepe.
Of those players who are better at retaining the ball than Willian, 3 were already on the pitch – Granit Xhaka, Dani Cabellos and Martin Odergaard. And with only 60 minutes on, brining Mo Elneny on for Emile Smith Rowe would have been too defensive.
With Thomas Partey injured, Willian for Smith Rowe was the clear and obvious substitution if we wanted to retain control, shape and attacking intent.
At 4-2 up, the Willian substitution looked poor. But as established he was not at fault for either of the goals.
The poor decision was made by Arteta.
He failed to take into account the side he was playing, and who manages them.
Marcelo Bielsa sides do not stop coming at you.
They could be 2-0 up or 4-0 down and they will keep playing one way – throwing men forward.
Arteta should have recognised the man in the other dug out and realised that even at 4-0 or 4-1, Arsenal would get chances on the break. That in this game, pace on the counter would probably have been better than looking for control.
But in 99% of other games, at 4-0 up, you bring on the man that will retain the ball. Pass and move. Move and pass. You do not bring on players with poor ball retention.
Willian was the right substitution but against the wrong opponents.