LONDON — Not many players achieve cult status before a ball has been kicked, especially not a 25-year-old Brazilian winger arriving in England with a modest reputation after spells with Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia and Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine. But when Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich attempted to hijack Spurs’ £30 million deadline-day transfer in 2013, Willian fast-tracked his name into folklore by becoming a willing accomplice.
Tottenham thought they had their man. Willian had agreed terms and undergone a medical, only for Chelsea to declare their hand. He spent eight hours in total at Spurs Lodge before eventually being released to move across the capital, earning him instant affection among gleeful Blues fans.
The soundtrack to a journey comprising more than 300 appearances and five major trophies was defined from the outset, a chant reveling in how “the s—s from Spurs, they bought his flight, but Willian, he saw the light.” Renditions have been a near-weekly occurrence during his seven years at the club.
Yet circumstances are now conspiring to deliver the ultimate irony: Willian’s time at Chelsea ending with him joining a London rival. The 31-year-old is out of contract on June 30, with Arsenal and Tottenham among several clubs eyeing a bargain in what will be a depressed summer transfer market as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
With Willian returning to England this week, following compassionate leave, and Premier League clubs gearing up to restart group training, the veteran playmaker faces the curious prospect of trying to secure a Champions League spot for a club he will not be contracted to — at the expense of another club he could soon join. How did it come to this?
Frank Lampard recognized a kindred spirit in Willian as a player. Lampard’s final season in Chelsea blue was Willian’s first, the 2013-14 campaign in which they lined up together 26 times. As teammates, Lampard saw reflections of himself in Willian’s work-ethic and professionalism – characteristics he would inevitably value when returning to manage the Blues last summer.
Only a hamstring injury curtailed Willian’s involvement in the formative weeks of Lampard’s tenure as manager, which began at the start of the 2019-20 season. Willian missed the first five matches, including Chelsea’s UEFA Super Cup defeat to Liverpool, before he quickly established himself as a mainstay of a team progressing well at home and abroad. Between Sept. 1 and Feb. 1, Willian started 25 of a possible 26 matches in the Premier League and Champions League.
“I think our style of play has helped me, but not only that, the freedom the manager gives to us is important as well,” Willian said in October. “I don’t have to stay on the right side. I can move around, I can move between the lines, I can move to the left side as well. I feel good playing in this way, and that’s why I have been playing better and better. I hope to continue like this.”
Yet the elephant in the room remained. It’s not uncommon for players in the final year of their contracts to avoid postmatch interviews for fear of bringing a private negotiation into the public domain, even if that can sometimes prove beneficial by applying pressure to the other party. In stark contrast — refreshingly so for those of us asking the questions — Willian has provided something approximating a running commentary on talks about his future, and every time he does, Lampard is asked for his response.
“That’s up to the club to do,” Lampard said on one such occasion in November. “But everyone sees how much I’m relying on him and picking him, and in what he is producing, I love him at this football club. So there’s my answer.”
Lampard is not directly involved in contract negotiations, with Chelsea club director Marina Granovskaia running that aspect of operations, but the different viewpoints held in the manager’s office and the boardroom are palpable. Willian turns 32 in August but is in excellent physical condition. A diligent professional and versatile on either flank, he was one of Chelsea’s most consistent performers under Lampard prior to a downturn in form shortly before the coronavirus disrupted the season.
Despite supporters continuing to revel in that chant — a particularly satisfying airing came when Willian struck twice in a 2-0 win at Tottenham just before Christmas – but fans, like the club itself, are somewhat divided over whether he is worth the three-year extension he is seeking. The club are certainly not convinced.
Chelsea operate on a strict policy of offering only one-year deals to players over the age of 30. They eventually buckled by doubling the length in re-signing defender David Luiz in May 2019, only for Lampard to jettison him in the summer. Willian has been offered a two-year deal, which he confirmed in February after Chelsea were outclassed by Bayern Munich in the Champions League last 16, first leg tie at Stamford Bridge.
“Chelsea offered me two years, and they are not going to change what they offered,” Willian told Esporte Interativo after Chelsea’s defeat by Bayern Munich. “I said I wanted three more years. The situation is difficult because of this. I really don’t know if it will be possible.”
Lampard vowed in response that it is “an ongoing situation — it is not over.” Yet last month, Willian stated in another interview, this time with Expediente Futebol, “We’re not talking anymore. There won’t be a negotiation.”
Sources close to the talks told ESPN that Lampard enlisted the help of technical director Petr Cech, the club’s legendary former goalkeeper and another of Willian’s former teammates, to help break the deadlock, but all to no avail. Chelsea, for their part, believe they have offered a fair compromise.
Football’s return is shrouded in uncertainty, but assuming a resumption is realised in some form, Willian will be one of the roughly 57 players asked to complete the season despite being technically out of contract on June 30. The season will certainly run into July and perhaps August, with many in the game concerned about the conflicts of interest this could raise.
Alan Pardew, who left his role as manager of ADO Den Haag after the Dutch Eredivisie was cancelled last month, said April 30: “The motivation of players who are out of contract on June 30 would be a problem, especially if they have agreed a contract with a new team. They will tell managers that they do not want to put themselves at risk.”
Other Chelsea players, Pedro and Olivier Giroud, also rank among the 57, though the former is waiting for talks to determine his future and is indifferent to staying, and the latter could yet sign a one-year extension after failing to secure a move in January.
Willian has never agitated for a move or asked for an increase on his £120,000-per-week wage. He has remained respectful of Chelsea at all times, if dogmatic in his stance toward contracts. “If I had to play on those dates, in these months, I think it would be no problem for me to end the league in a way which would be loyal to the club, as they always were with me,” he said in March. Yet a caveat that might worry Chelsea supporters has crept into his rhetoric of late.
Value will be at a premium in whatever transfer market exists once the coronavirus restrictions ease, and someone of Willian’s experience will be in higher demand than usual. Barcelona have long been linked with a move, but intriguingly, Arsenal and Tottenham have emerged as suitors, with intermediaries believed to have told both clubs that a deal could be possible if they do what Chelsea won’t and offer him a three-year deal on £120,000-per-week. Willian said as much last weekend. “If I leave Chelsea with no trouble and leaving the doors open, it would be fine to move to a rival club,” he told YouTube channel Desimpedidos.
Willian is settled in London with his wife and two children. He co-owns a restaurant called Babbo with Luiz in the capital, and he has spoken of his fondness for the city’s shopping and taking walks in Hyde Park. He has applied for a British passport. He recently set up an online course to help aspiring young footballers deal with the mental challenges the game poses. In what could readily be interpreted as a charm offensive move, Lampard voluntarily attended and even spoke at the launch.
Even so, outside influences abound. Tottenham head coach Jose Mourinho was Chelsea manager when Willian joined the Blues, and pickpocketing his former employers would tickle his Machiavellian streak. Arsenal’s technical director Edu also has a preexisting relationship with Willian from his time working with the Brazil national team. Both clubs will operate with limited budgets and could easily view Willian as the sort of reliable option they should seriously consider in the post-coronavirus world. Champions League qualification will impact all three clubs in their ability to attract players and compete in the market, making Willian’s pursuit of a top-four finish at Chelsea a potentially conflicted endeavour.
Revised thinking could be necessary at Stamford Bridge, too. The prospect of their late acquiescence to a three-year deal might be more palatable and, in a sense, serve as a more straightforward mode of squad strengthening. Chelsea have already signed Hakim Ziyech from Ajax and possess alternatives in wide areas with Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic, in addition to Mason Mount, who has played in a more advanced left-sided position on occasion this season. But if Pedro and Willian depart, it could leave Chelsea a little light in the creative department ahead of what all clubs recognise will be an extremely tough transfer window.
Chelsea’s youngsters have made a tremendous impact this season, but experienced hands will be needed to guide them in the future. The success of winning two Premier League titles, one Europa League, one FA Cup and one League Cup yields a lot of institutional know-how to lose if Willian leaves. If he ends up joining a London rival, the crowing from across town will be in Chelsea’s direction this time.