“I think it was the worst time that I lived as a professional,” Willian poignantly reflected after a disastrous stint at the Emirates.
Mikel Arteta’s first full season in charge was tumultuous and depressing as the club succumbed to another eighth-place finish. The Brazilian departed Arsenal as a villain – an agent of the Gunners’ cross-city West London rivals. The winger was scapegoated, accused of taking advantage of Arsenal’s generous three-year deal, rewarding the club with nothing but inconsistency, invisibility, and criminally little productivity.
In the summer of 2021, just twelve months into his new adventure, Willian left by mutual consent – he was hounded out and returned to his homeland to play for his boyhood side Corinthians. However, this romanticism generated an unexpected reaction – Willian and his family received various threats as he only found the net once and he swiftly rescinded his contract. He was forced into the pursuit of yet another challenge.
September 2022. Willian’s transfer to Fulham was announced on a one-year deal. His move back to London was questioned – surprisingly, the signing of an allegedly outdated, tired, and unreliable forward, didn’t deter the seemingly collective feeling that the Cottagers were destined for relegation. After their last two promotions, the first season back in the top flight was short-lived, unable to avoid the drop zone. Had Fulham sentenced themselves to a doomed future by relying on a forward way beyond his best?
The football community has been gripped by Chelsea’s ludicrous transfer scattergun and the robotic inevitability of Erling Haaland, but in the background, the unassuming signing of Willian has simmered into an underrated piece of genius. The attacker recaptured the form of his Chelsea days – a tricky, intricate, and diminutive wideman, with a treacherous, hypnotic strike.
He has ended the campaign with 11 goal involvements in 27 outings, a fabulous player still brimming with effervescence and quality. Despite drifting into irrelevancy for a period, Willian has retained his frightening acceleration, agility, and technique, once again sprinkling English football with flashes of brilliance.
One of the crowning moments of his wondrous comeback season occurred in February against Nottingham Forest. The ball trickled to Willian in a crowded penalty area. Renan Lodi instantly greets him, but with a fake shot, he shimmied and evaded his countryman. Through a sea of eight red shirts and on his weaker left foot, the dazzling South American arrowed a thunderous effort into the top corner.
This sequence and its devastating finale was named Premier League Goal of the Month. Willian has perfected this method of attack – facing up and pinning back the opposing defender, then within a flash, he delivered the ultimate blow. It was a vintage moment of impudent magnificence by a seasoned veteran.
Three months later, in a brutal schooling of an endangered Leicester City side, he was at it again. Gliding with the ball delicately glued to his laces, Willian darted inside the retreating Timothy Castange and Wilfried Ndidi, who admittedly awarded the mercurial talent with an inexplicable amount of time, before he unleashed a fizzing effort that viciously bounced off the turf into the bottom corner.
Fulham’s creativity is channelled through Willian – he has averaged the most key passes (1.9) and dribbles (1.4) per game in the squad, another casing point of his miraculous renaissance. The harrowing experience at Arsenal had misguided everyone’s judgment. Willian has been an imperious asset of an attack-minded, competitive, and aggressive midtable Fulham side, who have emphatically surpassed all expectations.
Now 34 years old, the joyous technician has aged impeccably, and with Fulham in talks to extend his current deal, we’ve all enjoyed the glorious resurgence of the former two-time Premier League winner. It would be foolish and reckless to assume that Fulham is entitled to another blissful season – Leeds and Sheffield United dramatically dropped off after their ninth-place finishes – but under Marco Silva, they have a leader who can adeptly craft offensive phases of play.
The glorious setting of Craven Cottage, which borders the glistening River Thames, is a landscape befitting of top-division football, and with Willian still able to decorate proceedings with his explosive directness and innovation, the club can rejoicingly look ahead to the future, rather than plan their customary escape plan from the Championship.
By: Alex Connor / @alexjconnor
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Paul Ellis – AFP