Five days into the World Cup and the far flung exotic talent linked to Manchester United is the rather familiar, Willian, a player with whom they have been linked in the last two windows. Willian played under José Mourinho at Chelsea and could certainly be one of Mourinho’s most shrewd former signings. Willian has played at Stamford Bridge for five seasons and appears eager to reunite with Mourinho at Old Trafford. Following the signing of Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk last week, Willian heralded the move of his compatriot, referring to United as “one of the biggest clubs in the world.”
At first glance, Willian is the classic Brazilian footballer with an excellent first touch and a burst of pace that drives him past opponents. What separates Willian is his ability to move the game forward and allow his team to advance ten, fifteen yards up the pitch at will and put more pressure on the opposing team. He operates similarly to Paul Pogba in this regard, arguably with less of the spectacular. Willian, though almost thirty years old, is part of that new breed of players – think Roberto Firmino at Liverpool or even Jesse Lingard at Manchester United – who are not traditional “position footballers.” Willian, a winger by classic nomenclature, is more comfortable driving infield than he is hugging the by-line, but his pace allows him to cut through gaps and find correct passes for his teammates.
Willian has been limited in game time under Antonio Conte at Chelsea but his pedigree was evident for all to see when Chelsea played Barcelona at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season. Willian scored Chelsea’s only goal of the game while also hitting both posts in the first half. Willian is an attack minded midfield player, having scored 44 goals since arriving in London in 2013.
Chelsea appeared reluctant to part with Willian in previous transfer windows. Chelsea could understandably feel burned by United last summer in signing Nemanja Matić, a player whom with the benefit of hindsight, Chelsea desperately needed to compete with Tiémoué Bakayoko in midfield. Having said that, the financial situation at Chelsea is far from straight forward since the Roman Abramovich visa saga began and they may now be eager to cash in any money which they can accrue.
Willian is a fantastic footballer to watch, and very easy on the eye. It is not difficult to see why any manager would want to sign him but perhaps the only troubling issue is wondering where he is going to fit in at Manchester United. In 2017/18, it is expected that United will move towards a 4-3-3 formation with Alexis Sánchez and Romelu Lukaku playing in two of those three attacking positions. Willian could in theory join them, but equally could Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard or Juan Mata. Matić, Fred and Paul Pogba are expected to line up in central midfield for Manchester United next season leaving presumably substitute time for the versatile Lingard, Ander Herrera and Scott McTominay. Willian would be a great addition but it remains unclear where he might be expected to fit into Mourinho’s team.
Spending sixty million pounds on a player who is most likely to start on the bench seems like a strange move for Jose Mourinho, though one which would leave him with an embarrassment of riches in forward positions. Are Manchester United now building the type of “Real Madrid in the 2000s” that saw their bench adorned with Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van Der Vaart? Or is José Mourinho signing a player to compete head to head with Paul Pogba for that free roaming position which Willian would fit into so perfectly? Perhaps in Willian, Mourinho eyes a player with a better work ethic and less prone to distraction. Either way, it is a situation which should excite Manchester United fans should they pry the talented Brazilian away from Stamford Bridge.