It feels too poetic that Willian’s first goal for Chelsea Football Club so perfectly encapsulated the brilliance of what would go onto be an almost seven-year stint in West London.
Under the Autumn sunlight of Norfolk in October 2013 , a tight game between Norwich City and Chelsea finally was blessed with its moment of magic to clinch the victory for the Blues. A loose ball invitingly presented itself to the Brazilian substitute who duly obliged to curl a right footed effort into the top corner of John Ruddy’s net. Ruddy’s acrobatics made the goal even more atheistically pleasing as Willian wheeled off in celebration.
For the remaining minutes of the contest the boisterous travelling end of Chelsea fans introduced to the footballing world a chant that would remain a favourite in the Chelsea Hymn Sheet for many seasons to come.
“The Sh*t from Spurs
They Bought his flight,
but Willian, he saw the light.
He got the call from Abramovich,
and off he went to Stamford Bridge.
He Hates Tottenham, He Hates Tottenham,
He Hates Tottenham
and He Hates Tottenham.”
The catchy tune was inspired by the winger’s infamous last minute switch from North to West London after it appeared The Lilywhites had captured the services of the then-25 year old Brazilian International.
Willian had taken a medical, only for the influence of Roman Abramovich to swing the tide over Willian’s eventual destination. It is believed Abramovich’s familiarity with fellow Russian Oligarch Suleyman Kerimov, owner of Anzhi Makhachkala helped to execute the Bond-like scoop in a short space of time to the astonishment of those from Tottenham.
Willian had caused the Blues issues during his time with Shakhtar Donetsk in the 2012 Group Stages of the Champions League. Even before 2013, it was clear Chelsea had been admirers of the attacking midfielder, reportedly trying to sign him in every transfer window since 2011. Their continued persistence eventually paid off in time for Jose Mourinho’s second coming as the Portuguese looked to construct another title winning machine.
In Willian’s first season he had a battle on his hands for minutes as his area of the pitch was congested with options for Mourinho to choose from. With only three spots available behind the forward in his 4-2-3-1
formation, Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata had established themselves as the creative trio in the previous campaign. However with the arrivals of Willian, Andre Schürrle from Bayer Leverkusen and a returning Kevin De Bruyne made minutes a precious commodity.
Willian made 25 appearances in his first season in English football. Scoring 4 goals and creating 10 assists as Chelsea finished third in the Premier League and reached the Semi-Final of the Champions League. All of Willian’s goals came in the League and nearly all were glorious strikes.
His second in a New Year’s Day win over Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton at St. Mary’s – cutting inside and drilling a low shot past Arthur Boruc. An equally impressive curler at home to Stoke City in April settled a convincing home win over the Potters, with the winger exquisitely placing the ball from outside the box into the bottom corner as sumptuously as a Roger Federer backhand down the line at Wimbledon . His last was the easiest of his entire Chelsea career, rolling the ball into an empty net at Anfield to clinch an iconic victory over Liverpool to dent their title hopes. In January of 2014, both Juan Mata and Kevin De Bruyne were sold, freeing up space for Willian to establish himself under Mourinho who was starting to configure an impressive base.
Although Schürrle had found his way into the first team in spots as Eden Hazard dominated proceedings on the left of Chelsea’s attack, the following season would see Willian beat out the German as Mourinho’s favoured choice.
Only one appearance away from doubling his 13/14 total, Willian would become a key component in Mourinho’s pragmatic and determined title winning Chelsea in 14/15. Despite equalling the same number of goals, Willian would only miss two Premier League outings, adding a unrelenting work rate that outshone the direct running of Schürrle who dropped out of the starting eleven and was subsequently sold in January back to the Bundesliga. The same fate would befall Mohammed Salah loaned to Serie A side Fiorentina in the same transfer window.
Even with Juan Cuadrado’s arrival, the Columbian could not usurp his South American peer who would pop up in February for a big late winner at home to Everton which put Chelsea further in front of a chasing Manchester City who never recovered. Mourinho’s intense demands for defensive contribution from his attacking players was perfect for Willian who would regularly play big roles in helping Chelsea isolate and nullify opposing threats, whilst busting a gut to feature in ferocious counter-attacking moves.
Willian’s hands would grab not only the prestige of Premier League winners medal but also a League Cup as well in an overwhelmingly triumphant season.
However the personal accolades and praise would go to the man on the opposite flank in Eden Hazard.
The Belgian’s World Class ability, dazzling skill and big goals made the difference as the Blues entered the final lap in their chase for a fourth Premier League crown. Hazard was the undeniable golden boy of Chelsea. He had won the PFA and FWA Player of The Year awards and had ascended to become one of the best players in England’s top tier.
Willian’s workman-like nature despite technical prowess would go under the radar. There was also an inkling the chant that accompanied his presence was more born out of supporters’ urge to mock a bitter rival rather than out of true affection for the player himself. In what would be a pretty dark season in West London, 15/16 became the year fans truly appreciated Willian’s talent.
Willian’s heroic feats in what would be a disastrous season for Chelsea brings to mind the words of Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you. Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too!”.
As Mourinho spiralled into an inevitable sacking, Eden Hazard’s persistent injury issues extinguished his game changing ability and palpable discord loomed permanently in the air, one man kept his head high to try and drag his team through the darkest moments.
His highest tally 11 goals and 10 assists brought with a host of incredible goals. Most notably was his exceptional free-kick taking which appeared to get another addition to the highlight reel on a weekly basis.
It started against Maccabi Tel Aviv as a looped cross deceived a poor visiting defence to find the net in a Champions League Group Stage opener. Then a similarly deceiving ball a fortnight later would rescue Chelsea an unlikely point away to Newcastle United coming from 2-0 down. Three days later, another equaliser from a free-kick away to Porto on the stroke of half time leaving Iker Casillas stranded. His most astonishing free-kick came in the following game at home to Southampton, scoring the first from a ridiculous angle, looping from a similar position to the Tel Aviv goal to strike the frame of the goal and go in.
Sadly as was common during the campaign, Willian’s singular brilliance could not prevent his team from capitulating to defeats against both Porto and Southampton. However, his next two set piece goals against Tel Aviv and Dynamo Kyiv would both bring with them the victory. In particular, the winning free-kick against Kyiv sent the Matthew Harding into raptures as the bright smile of the Brazilian gleamed, knee sliding on the turf to soak in an adoring crowd’s approval. Even with Mourinho gone and Chelsea facing a dull end to the season condemned to mid-table mediocrity, Willian still kept delivering on a consistent basis.
Although it would come in a frustrating season, Willian would deservedly pick up the Club’s Player of The Season award with zero competition for the honour.
Antonio Conte’s arrival radically changed the club’s fortunes in a positive direction, but simultaneously lead to Willian’s biggest fight for minutes with Pedro. In Conte’s transformative 3-4-3 system, Pedro would excel in his best season for the club whilst Willian had to be patient for his involvement. Despite his tough tussle for minutes, Willian bettered his goal tally from 15/16 with 12 in the season. His most memorable coming away at The Etihad were the Blues blitzed the Citizens in a stunning second half comeback. In what would turn out to be a defining day in the title race, Willian would race through a slow City backline and fire a strike into the bottom corner to put Chelsea 2-1 up before Hazard would wrap up the game in added time.
Willian would pick up his second Premier League trophy in May to wrap up another impressive season in West London. Another highlight for fans was his first goals against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley in an enthralling semi-final victory over the North London rivals to add further fuel to his infamous chant.
Whilst Willian had managed to see out his competition for minutes previously, the Spaniard Pedro would prove his worth to Conte once again in 17-18, netting a few decisive goals. The 55 appearances racked up by Willian would be his highest tally since arriving in 2013 in what would be a pretty arduous season for Chelsea competing across four competitions and going all the way to lift the FA Cup in May. The high point of the year would be Willian’s inspired night at home to Barcelona in the first leg of the Last 16 in the Champions League. On a night where the attacker could have scored a hat-trick against the Catalans, striking the post and using his trickery to forge chances against imperious opposition, Willian would wisely find space outside the box centrally from a short corner. He would receive the ball, attract a Barca shirt before performing a trademark step over, shifting the ball from under his feet and drilling an effort into the goal for the Matthew Harding to erupt once more on a European night thanks to his brilliance.
In what would be Willian’s most unsavoury moment as a Chelsea player, he posted a photo of Chelsea celebrating the FA Cup win whilst placing emoji’s over his head coach Conte, who had left him out the Cup Final starting eleven. The action unsurprisingly went viral and brought with it a wrath of criticism and disdain for such an action from a senior first team player.
As social media continued to rise in prevalence for fan discussion online, Willian would find himself specifically targeted by certain sections for harsh criticism. Despite featuring in multiple triumphs for the club and gaining good will from support inside Stamford Bridge, for some accounts Willian was a player deserving of abuse, something which would only grow, getting more and more unsavoury. In the Summer of 2018, Barcelona came calling for the winger in an attempt to prize him out of Stamford Bridge – the move did not materialise and Willian would begin his sixth season in Royal Blue under his fourth Head Coach after the departure of Conte.
Under Maurizio Sarri in 2018/19 Willian had his most underwhelming campaign. Unable to reach double figures for goals, there was a sense the Brazilian’s time at Chelsea was coming to an end. There was an eagerness to see youth hopeful Callum Hudson-Odoi feature in the first team ahead of an inconsistent Willian as Chelsea’s creativity dried up during difficult periods. The hostility from sections of the support towards Sarri was born out of frustration over a style of play, but also predictable team selections which Willian was a part of. The age of Chelsea’s attack was also rising as most weeks Eden Hazard (28), Olivier Giroud (32) and one of Willian (30) or Pedro (31) would lineup to form an attack which was significantly ahead in age to the vibrant youthful attacks of Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City.
Willian would end the year with another piece of silverware to his name as the Blues won the Europa League and recaptured a place in the following season’s Champions League.
A bit like the previous summer, Willian’s future could have been cast in doubt if it wasn’t for the imposed transfer ban which prevented the club from investing. The will to sell any key players became unlikely in order to retain quality within the squad especially after losing Eden Hazard to Real Madrid.
Hazard’s departure and Frank Lampard’s arrival as Head Coach brought with it equal fear and excitement for the season ahead. Lampard’s commitment to give the club’s next generation an opportunity to fight for first team minutes gave an expectancy that older heads like Willian and Pedro may struggle behind the fresh legs of Callum Hudson-Odoi and new-boy Christian Pulisic signed from Borussia Dortmund for £60m in the January 2019 window.
Willian would miss pre-season and look sluggish on his return from his exertions on international duty at Brazil’s Copa America win. However with Hudson-Odoi recovering from an achilles injury, Willian would soon reclaim his first team spot following the first international break for a stunning victory against Wolves.
He would soon start to prosper under his former teammate Lampard, netting at home to Brighton and volleying home the winner away to Lille on the night of his 300th Appearance for the club. Equally impressive performances would follow as Lampard leaned on the experience of the winger to help guide the younger heads in the starting lineup.
In what would turn out to be one of the biggest victories of the season, Willian would score another double against Spurs on the eve of Christmas to gift Chelsea fans lots of festive cheer in a glorious individual performance. Cutting inside from a short corner and curling a shot into the bottom corner, before netting the second from the spot before the break. It was equally poetic that Jose Mourinho, the man partly responsible for convincing Willian to join Chelsea instead of the North London club was now watching his former player strike a crushing blow.
Unlike in previous campaigns, Willian had competition for his spot from Hudson-Odoi and Pulisic who both were looking to impress. Lampard’s meritocracy was getting the best out of a lot of players and it seemed to be increasing the level in the squad week by week who all knew their coach wasn’t going to hand out minutes cheaply.
Following the unexpected shutdown of football due to the Coronavirus pandemic, there was a major belief Willian would finally depart at the expiry of his contract. Even when “Project Restart” was announced to resume football there was still concern the winger may not sign a short contract extension to cover the remaining games. Luckily those fears were put to rest pretty quickly as Willian committed his time to Frank Lampard.
In what was shaping up to be his final weeks in Blue, Willian excelled consistently as one of Chelsea’s best creators. As Manchester United’s new star Bruno Fernandes got all the plaudits for his creative play, Willian was matching him for created chances since the restart in the Premier League as the two clubs competed for Champions League qualification. The set piece specialism that had played a role in most of Willian’s greatest Chelsea moments were back in full effect. Scoring the winning penalty at home to Manchester City, netting another two against West Ham including a wonderful free-kick. Another penalty at home to Watford and a couple of assists for a firing Christian Pulisic to help his team find the edge.
Willian would miss the final two domestic outings of the season at home to Wolves and the FA Cup Final defeat to Arsenal. Both occasions would have provided fitting conclusions for what has been an impressive career in West London. The absence of fans inside Stamford Bridge rang strongly following the victory against Wolves as Pedro took his final steps on the hallowed turf, as both Willian and Pedro would have in normal circumstances been given a proper sendoff.
Since the FA Cup final it has become clear that Willian is set for his exit as his demands for a new three-year contract go over Chelsea’s policy on two years for players over-30. Just like Petr Cech and David Luiz, it appears Willian will make the switch across London from West to North to join Arsenal who are one of a number of clubs chasing his signature. This news will not please Frank Lampard who has expressed his desire to keep Willian given how big a role he’s played under him this season. There is also a concern that losing the invaluable winning experience of Willian and Pedro in one Summer will be missed next season as younger heads lead Chelsea’s attack. Although given his demands and the exciting arrivals of Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner, plus the emergence of Christian Pulisic and potential of Callum Hudson-Odoi, this feels like a natural end point to Willian’s Chelsea story.
Over his seven year career at Chelsea, Willian has almost done it all.
2 Premier League titles, a Europa League, an FA Cup and A League Cup too to add to a pretty glittering CV of silverware captured across different continents.
Even through his inconsistencies which have irritated supporters at times, he has remained a respected and relied upon figure for all the Head Coaches he’s worked under at Chelsea. Jose Mourinho, Gus Hiddink, Antonio Conte, Maurizio Sarri and Frank Lampard have all included him as a regular member in their best eleven. This is not a coincidence, or luck, Willian has seen off talent to hold onto his first team spot at one of Europe’s top clubs.
His peers truly respect him and value his talent on the pitch. In a recent piece by Simon Johnson in The Athletic reflecting on Willian’s Chelsea career, Branislav Ivanovic recalls how he played the best football of his career with the 31-year-old on the flank.
Willian’s biggest crime was not being Eden Hazard, something many at Chelsea have struggled with. For nearly all of his time since arriving from Anzhi in 2013 he remained in Hazard’s shadow, the mercurial magician who could perform mesmerising feats on a football pitch that many could only dream of executing. It said a lot about Willian’s character that in 15/16 when Hazard faded, he stepped up to the plate to add the required magic.
His exceptional work rate and persistent running has always been commended by fans, and his genuine moments of flair throughout a season are worth the price of admission.
Few players in the reactionary modern world of football can boast the levels of consistency Willian can at a top six club. In the current squad, the only member to better his longevity in SW6 is Captain Cesar Azpilicueta who arrived a year earlier in the Summer of 2012.
Willian has gone out on a high, making his best numbers for goal involvements in the Premier League for Chelsea, netting 11 goals and making 7 assists.
His departure to a rival will hurt a few supporters, but fully appreciating the service he has given to Chelsea since 2013, few can deny he has earned the right to bow out of Stamford Bridge on his own terms.
Even though his infamous chant will live on with the tale of him rejecting Tottenham, Willian did a lot more than see the light – he was a brilliant player for Chelsea Football Club.