Recent reports have suggested that Manchester United are looking to add not one Brazilian midfielder to their ranks, but two. Much has been written about Fred, acquired from Shakhtar Donetsk, but Chelsea’s Willian could prove an even more versatile signing. It is unclear why Chelsea would contemplate letting him go, but if United have a chance to buy him they should take it.
Willian is the perfect Jose Mourinho player: in the sense that he is tactically intelligent, works extremely hard in defence and attack, and does not need to be integrated into complex attacking systems in order to thrive.
In fact, he even thrives when his fellow teammates are playing poorly, as was seen in the 2015-16 Premier League season. Then, as Chelsea made one of the worst ever defences of their title (so poor that Mourinho was sacked), Willian flourished while Eden Hazard flailed and scored 11 goals in 49 games in all competitions.
The Brazilian is supremely self-sufficient, even more so than Alexis Sanchez. Yet despite doing so much by himself, Willian is a superb team player — there is a selflessness about his play that sometimes makes you forget how gifted on the ball he is.
He throws himself into defensive work with the vigour of Antonio Valencia and can not only play as an out-and-out winger on either flank, but also in a midfield two or three. He is equally effective when trying to break down deep-lying defences or when leading the counter-attack, as United saw recently when he faced them in Chelsea’s 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford. Willian is also a fine free kick taker — an area in which United, despite the presence of Paul Pogba and Juan Mata, have struggled.
Most importantly, Willian would solve two key problems. The first is that he would add crucial drive and depth to United’s midfield, helping to ease the formidable workload faced by Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic. The second is that he would instantly give United’s right flank far greater pace and width.
On the right, Mourinho has often favoured a combination of Valencia and Mata, with the Spanish midfielder cutting in off the flank and finding space in central areas, allowing Valencia to take control of the right wing. The problem with that is two-fold: It makes the job easier for the opposing left-back, since there is only one player approaching him, and also gives Valencia a degree of playmaking responsibility which is not required for the way he plays now.
Valencia was a freewheeling winger years ago, but years as a full-back have curbed his attacking flair, and specifically the accuracy of his crossing. It is probably asking too much, as Mourinho has in recent seasons, to expect him to be both the right flank’s best defender and best attacker — especially at age 32. If Willian were to be signed, though, Valencia could supplement the attack when needed.
Tite trusts Willian so much that he plays him in his multi-talented Brazil team. And trust is perhaps more important to Mourinho more than any other manager.
The United manager is a particularly demanding taskmaster and players who disappoint him in big matches are quickly discarded. Willian, like Nemanja Matic before him, is very much a known quantity to Mourinho, having won a league title with him in 2014-15.
His signing, from that perspective, would not represent a risk. The only point of hesitation over buying Willian is that it seems to buck the trend of Mourinho trying to create a young team that can compete for years.
Willian, like Matic and Sanchez is 29. This hardly makes him ancient, but it does mean that United will have to replace a core of key players within four years. That is a sign of the short-termism which has characterised most of Mourinho’s career to date, and suggests an urgency on the manager’s part.
That urgency is not necessarily a bad thing, it is just a sign that the United job may not have changed Mourinho as much as observers might have hoped. It is also a continuation of the Mourinho trend, as first seen when he arrived at Chelsea from Porto, to bring a few title-winning players with him.
So, the pursuit of Willian should continue. He would make United a far more solid proposition in defence, bring some entertainment, and offer both goals and assists — the key area in which they were lacking last year.
As they did with Matic, United can only hope that Chelsea are sufficiently unwise to let him go.
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