An Unnoticed Talisman: Willian

SEPTEMBER 8 – MILWAUKEE, WISCONSON, U.S.A.

I’m running late, late if I want to find a decent seat at the bar that is. Jürgen Klinsmann needs some answers from his United States’ national team, and to be honest so do I. The U.S. plays Mexico in October in a one off for a spot in the 2017 Confederations Cup, and mind-boggling inconsistency paired with a recent Gold Cup exit to Jamaica doesn’t have anyone in Sam’s army bathing in confidence. Tonight we play Brazil and I’m on my way to the Red Lion Pub on N Water Street in search of some sort of atmosphere and an elusive parking spot.

The venue is one of those trendy English-style pubs plopped on American soil. It’s got fliers on all the walls advertising all the upcoming matches and even has one of those nifty soccer pool tables on the rooftop deck. It should be an oasis to American fans competing on an athletic landscape dominated by other sports. That’s why I’m thoroughly disappointed to push through the door to find the place completely vacant apart from a few bartenders. I knew there was something fishy about my straightforward parking job.

“Is this the spot to watch the USA match?” I inquire skeptically.

“Sure is!” returns a friendly voice, noticeably British. “What can I get ya?”

I order a Guinness to which the barman obliges. He then goes on to insist that Coutinho and Roberto Firmino are going to have their way with the United States tonight. I don’t argue, merely ask if he is a Liverpool supporter – predictably affirmative.

The lineups are out and the United States’ XI is practically shuffled at random. One could argue that’s its only consistency, though. Brazil have taken pity. Neymar doesn’t start and neither do Coutinho nor Firmino. Our Liverpool fan pretends not to see. Bayern Munich’s new star, Douglas Costa, has been granted the left flank while surprisingly enough the creative reins have been handed to Willian, Chelsea’s gifted grafter.

The whistle shrieks and Willian is immediately unplayable. He’s like a banshee on the loose. Tough he’s listed on the right side formationally, he’s hardly shackled to the touch line. He strays everywhere in fact, humiliating someone there and combining cleverly here. He’s nothing short of a yellow blur with a half-fro zipping by U.S. defenders like training sticks. Hulk may have opened the scoring but he has no one but Willian to thank for his goal. Eventually the banshee passes the baton to Neymar at half as the latter replaces the former and allows the inevitable to set in. The U.S. crumbles to a 4-1 loss that’s as disappointing as it is worrying for the stars and stripes.

Willian won’t play again until the weekend.

Chelsea are away at Everton and the Brazilian isn’t introduced until the 74th minute when he comes on for Cesc Fabregas, a player that’s nothing short of a phantom straight through to his substitution. Willian is shifty at Goodison, pausing defenders before springing past them, but he does little else than win a corner and give away a foul before the final whistle blows to confirm Chelsea’s third loss of the season, third loss in five games. As for Willian personally, he will have looked a much different player back in a blue shirt. Not only was he not given enough time to acclimate into the game, the Willian who polarised the United States appeared suppressed and tucked into himself, like a bird of prey whose wings had been clipped.

You see, the Willian that played on the proceeding Tuesday outside of Boston was a circumstantial anomaly. In the instance of a friendly with nothing on the line for Brazil, manager Dunga had the luxury to rotate, rest, and experiment with his selecão. The mixture just happened to allow the best of Willian to shine, if only for 45 minutes. Much like a lucky slot machine, everything fell in line. For the first time since his move to Chelsea the team was actually centered around Willian – jackpot. All of a sudden he wasn’t deputy; he was sheriff.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that he’ll be allowed another crack at such a role in the immediate future. When it comes to the national side Neymar’s the puppeteer. Everything runs through him and Willian is made to play a role to support that. But at Chelsea, he’s even further down the pecking order of main acts. Jose Mourinho selects his favourites wherever he goes and if you’re not one of them, you could be putting your career in peril (right, señor Casillas?). Willian hasn’t strayed that far out of favour but he’s certainly not the first name on the team sheet. Coming up with a muscle problem on the first night of the Champions League against Maccabi Tel-Aviv won’t help his case either.
Mourinho’s aces have underperformed this season which parallels Chelsea’s woeful start. Yet it’s unlikely that Jose will have the humility to pine Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas, and Diego Costa. Moreover he’ll likely come to the conclusion that Oscar’s return from injury absence will provide more of a solution than an alternation of the selectional hierarchy in Willian’s favour.

Furthermore, Mourinho is a pragmatic tactician that depends on rigorous team balance for which he often receives the criticism of being too cautious for the personnel he possesses. There was no room in the team for Willian against Everton because away from home “The Special One” often deploys two holding midfielders, a pattern repeated at Goodison with Jon Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic. Therefore in order to keep his favourites in attack, Willian was the player sacrificed.

So on the whole of things it doesn’t sounds like the most nurturing environment for an ultra-technical, romantically vintage, mono-named Brazilian like Willian. But Willian has a sense of dutiful grit and a tenacious work ethic, values that Mourinho cherishes. In truth if those values aren’t coded in your psyche, Mourinho will show you the door, as was the case with Juan Mata.

In the end it’s a tragedy. In both cases, at his club and with his national team, Willian is valued for the player traits that make him an integral supporting cast member. Contrastingly, he has the potential to do much more if given the chance to orchestrate and truly express his abilities. Yet sadly those opportunities are few and far between. Unless the stubborn Mourinho has a change of heart and/or Brazil take the spotlight off of Neymar, Willian will remain the best number 10 we’ll never see fully blossom.

So as I leave the Red Lion Pub, I’m troubled from an American standpoint; it was painful defeat. I’m also disheartened by the lack of fans that showed up to watch. Maybe they’re the smart ones who didn’t make a night out of such a demoralising friendly. Yet maybe they’re the unlucky ones. Because from an objective point of view, I saw something they won’t soon see again – the best of Brazil and Chelsea’s Willian, an unnoticed talisman.

Written by Robert Mohr. 

THE TURF