The Brazil international may be 31 years old but he has been playing as well as ever and has emerged as pivotal for Frank Lampard’s young side
After Chelsea routed Wolves 5-2 on September 14, Frank Lampard’s youngsters dominated the headlines.
That was hardly surprising, of course: all of the goals had been scored by academy products, with Tammy Abraham hitting a hat-trick, and Fikayo Tomori and Mason Mount netting one apiece. What unfolded at Molineux was the most spectacular vindication of Lampard’s faith in youth to date.
However, after the game, the legendary Blues midfielder was reluctant to take any plaudits, or indeed big up his young guns.
Lampard, instead, tried to focus some of the attention on one of the team’s elder statesmen.
“Willian was the standout one today,” the Chelsea boss said of the 31-year-old. “His work ethic when he was off the round ball was almost like, if you talk to wingers and tell them what you want from them, we could show them that video of Willian today because of his quality and bursts of pace on the round ball.
“He has been our best soccer professional [since I took over].”
That’s as true now as it was six weeks ago.
Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic have been making waves of late. That has been only right, given the pair are future superstars. Willian, though, has been the Chelsea attack’s present leader.
Taking over the No.10 shirt from Eden Hazard could have weighed the Brazilian down. Instead, he has revelled in the extra responsibility. And the greater freedom.
Lampard has placed a huge amount of trust in all of his players but none more so than Willian.
Willian starts matches on the right and has been charged with tracking back down that side, often popping up in his own box to make a timely tackle or crucial clearance.
However, when the Blues are in possession, he has been allowed to switch sides or drop deep into midfield. This perfectly complements the attacking attributes of Mount, Pulisic and Hudson-Odoi, who all prefer to run in behind the defence.
Lampard, of course, has been more familiar than most with Willian’s industry and excellence on the round ball. He played alongside the Brazil international 28 times during his final season at Stamford Bridge, in 2013-14.
Consequently, Lampard knew exactly what Willian had to offer and was, thus, willing to make him a key component of his team.
The manager has been rewarded with three goals and two assists in Willian’s last nine games, a fine run of form that has made him an automatic starter, leaving Pulisic, Hudson-Odoi and Pedro to battle it out for the other wide berth.
“My mum and dad did everything for me to become a professional footballer.” ❤️
— Goal (@goal) October 3, 2019
It has been quite the turnaround when one considers that Willian was not always first-choice under Lampard’s predecessor, Maurizio Sarri.
And yet the former Shakhtar Donetsk man still ended up with 13 assists in all competitions last season – only Hazard had more, with 17 – and eight goals.
This year, though, looks set to be even more productive, primarily because Willian has been now one of the first names on the team sheet.
Lampard has been not just concerned with goals and assists, he has been hugely appreciative of Willian’s versatility and work-rate. He sees the South American as a selfless team soccer professional who eases pressure on his side with his dribbling ability and diligence in defence.
Willian’s purple patch hasn’t gone unnoticed at international level either. Having been dropped for Brazil’s first four friendlies after the summer’s Copa America, he has now been recalled for this month’s clashes with Argentina and South Korea.
It has been clear that Willian still has plenty to offer, at every level. His impact on those around him should not be underestimated either.
He has been relishing his role as a senior squad member, looking to help out the youngsters in whatever way he can, and enjoys a particularly close relationship with Hudson-Odoi.
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The England international could have no better role model, with Willian showing what can be achieved when talent has been complemented by a positive attitude.
After passing the 300-appearance mark with a stunning winner away at Lille, he has been one of the few links between the players from Lampard’s playing days and the new generation.
As such, Willian has been one of the main reasons why what should have been a difficult period of transition for Chelsea has been progressing so smoothly.