Every week at The Center Circle, we are highlighting a different player in a feature we call “On the Spot”. We’ll take a look at superstars, underrated gems, aging veterans, and young unknowns who should be known. We’ll peruse their club and international careers, taking note of their teams, statistics, and highlight reels. We’ll illuminate their strengths and weaknesses and comment on their personalities and reputations. It will be some fun. If there is anyone you want to see “On the Spot”, feel free to comment below.
Things haven’t really gone too well for Chelsea this season. The Blues have spent the majority of the campaign below mid-table, and a summer of departures and additions is surely ahead of them. During this lackluster year, one player has managed to emerge as one of the team’s new superstars. Willian’s performances in the midfield have earned rave reviews from fans around the globe, and it looks as if he might be the player to lead Chelsea into the new era.
Willian’s professional career is rooted in his homeland of Brazil. After starting in Sao Paolo FC’s academy, the winger ended up moving to fellow powerhouse Corinthians’ academy at nine years old. After several years in the Corinthians’ system, Willian announced himself to the world at a Brazilian youth tournament, the Copa Sao Paulo de Futebol Junior, in 2005 with his impressive performances helping Corinthians win some silverware.
That year, Willian would also make his first team debut against Fluminese. After just two first team appearances in 2005/06, the 18-year-old midfielder would play another 15 matches the following year. His best performance came against Clube Atlético Paranaense where he scored two goals, including this long free kick. Unfortunately, at the conclusion of the 2007 season, Corinthians finished in the bottom four of the Brazilian top flight and were relegated.
Shining at Shakhtar
In August, the promising winger made the move to Europe. Ukrainian powerhouse Shakhtar Donestk paid a reported £11 million for Willian’s signature. His first season in the Ukrainian Premier League was a difficult one as he struggled to find the back of the net, or even earn a place in the starting 11. That season did yield some major milestones, however, as Willian made his Champions League debut and also helped his new club to a league title and the Ukrainian Cup.
During his second season with Shakhtar, Willian found the form that made him one of Brazil’s brightest prospects at Corinthians. The 21-year-old was a near constant starter for the Ukrainian club. That season, the Brazilian scored eight times through all competitions including a first Champions League goal against FC Basel. While Shakhtar failed to win any domestic trophies, they did take home the UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League) after a dramatic 2-1 extra time win against Werder Bremen.
Over the next three seasons, Willian would find even more success at his Ukrainian home. Shakhtar would go on to win three more league titles, two more league cups, and two Ukrainian Super Cups. In his final season in the Ukraine, Willian even managed to score a brace against his future employers Chelsea in the Champions League.
After six years at Shakhtar, Willian was once again on the move. In the 2013 January transfer window, Anzhi Makhachkala signed the Brazilian for a reported £27 million. The midfielder joined the likes of Samuel Eto’o and Lassana Diarra on Guus Hiddink’s expensive squad. Due to financial issues with the club, Willian would leave Anzhi in the following summer transfer window after just 11 league appearances for the Russian club.
Leaving for London
In August, Chelsea signed the Brazilian for £30 million. In his first season at Stamford Bridge, Willian would make 25 appearances (18 of them as a starter). Despite an initial struggle with adapting to the more physical English game, Willian would begin to thrive in the Premier League after a couple months in London. He would score four league goals (his first coming against Norwich) for his new club, and provide seven assists through all competitions.
The 2014/15 campaign saw Willian become a key addition to Chelsea’s fierce attacking line. Alongside him were Cesc Fabregas, Oscar, Diego Costa and Eden Hazard. Even though he didn’t have a massive statistical impact on the team (two goals, three assists), Willian appeared in 36 out of the team’s 38 games, and his creativity helped them to the second best attacking record in the league. His second season as a Blue also saw Chelsea dominate the league as they won by eight points. In addition to the league title, Willian also helped Chelsea win the League Cup.
This year, Willian has emerged as arguably Chelsea’s most dangerous man in the final third. A run from September to October, the Brazilian found the back of the net in four straight games. This impressive streak saw him score some unbelievable free kicks against Macabbi Tel Aviv, Newcastle United, Porto, and Southampton. Currently, the 27-year-old has found the back of the net ten times through all competitions and is the team’s second-highest goal scorer.
Due to the incredible depth that Brazil has in the midfield, Willian has found international experience somewhat hard to come by. His impressive displays with Chelsea during the 2013/14 season earned him a spot in the Brazilian World Cup squad in 2014. During the tournament, Willian would come off the bench four times and even feature in the second round penalty shootout against Chile (he would miss his shot) as Brazil would go on before suffering a humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals. Last summer, he started four times for Brazil in the Copa América before getting knocked out in the quarterfinals.
For Chelsea, Willian is primarily fielded as a wing midfielder, but can just as easily line up behind the striker. What makes him so dangerous in attack is his trademark Brazilian style. He can distribute the ball with quick decisive passes, and take defenders on one-on-one. His creativity on the ball makes him an invaluable part of Chelsea’s attack. Since his introduction to the Premier League, the Brazilian has also demonstrated an ability to find the back of the net through incredible means, and has emerged as one of the best free kick takers in the world.