The £30m problem that sums up Arsenal’s decline ahead of Chelsea visit

Typical Willian. The Brazilian has long been a player primed for highlights packages; the type who can look incredible on Match of the Day but so often infuriating when observed for a full 90 minutes.

So it proved last night against West Bromwich Albion. Those catching up after will have seen a remarkable free kick to make it 3-1 in the final minute of a largely meaningless game. Bitesize viewers may have also seen his pass in the lead up to Emile Smith Rowe’s 29th-minute goal. They will not have seen the dawdling, passive build-up play that preceded it.

Two moments late in Thursday night’s feeble, season-ending draw against Villarreal, with the pressure dialed up, offered a far more accurate summation of the Brazilian’s season. Perhaps Arsenal’s too.

In the 84th minute Mikel Arteta’s team had a corner on the left. Six red and white shirts were waiting near the penalty spot, three more were on the edge of the area but Willian’s delivery was so overhit it missed them all.

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Six minutes later, the desperation more severe, Hector Bellerin won a corner on the opposite flank and with seven team-mates in the area and two more near the ‘D’ Willian somehow contrived to repeat his trick and strike the ball beyond everyone.

Chelsea supporters have witnessed such failures to execute the basics countless times, of course, and as the Brazilian returns to Stamford Bridge for the first time on Wednesday night it is worth contemplating those ill-advised comments about winning the Champions League in north London.

“When I talked with the manager he told me why he needed me for three years,” he told The Sun in the early autumn. “It was that he first wanted to qualify for the Champions League and win it by the time I left. That was what I wanted to hear.

“I was at Chelsea for seven years and won everything except the Champions League. Hopefully this move will give me the trophy I haven’t got as well as another Premier League title.”

Except the reality is that if Chelsea had been willing to meet his demands for three years he would likely never have considered the move across town.

The Blues offered him two, having initially only wanted to extend his stay by 12 months. But that was not enough to appease him and a weird standoff took hold long before coronavirus landed on the island.

In particular Willian’s claims that he had not yet received an offer after a Champions League game away to Valencia in November did not go down well behind the scenes. It turned out he had, it was just not the deal he was after.

Even towards the end, as Willian performed well in those unsettling opening weeks behind closed doors, Frank Lampard remained very keen for him to stay. The former head coach valued the winger’s experience highly in a young dressing room, on more than one occasion effusively praising his professionalism.

In stark contrast there was a distinct lack of it when he broke lockdown rules for a jaunt to Dubai in November, without Arsenal’s permission. As reported elsewhere at the time, some of his current team-mates were unimpressed that Arteta kept him in the starting XI for the next game, a 0-0 draw away to Leeds, and the head coach was evasive and prickly when asked about the excursion, simply saying it had been dealt with internally.

From January up until the past two fixtures he had been largely relegated to a non-impactful substitute but many Arsenal supporters seem justifiably concerned that he is blocking a route to more action for one of many academy graduates who may or may not develop into something special and long-term.

With that in mind it was curious to hear Arteta’s response when asked about the end of a long wait for his first Arsenal goal last night. “Somehow this season we haven’t managed, up till now, to get the best out of him,” the head coach said. But was it ever realistic to get the best out of a player who turns 33 in August?

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That Arsenal have an ageing player past his peak on an exorbitant contract worth £200,000 per week (about £30m in total) for two more seasons at a time where belt tightening is likely and regenerating a weak squad is a necessity, sums up why the club is in disarray from top to bottom.

Willian’s contract epitomises the poor planning and decision-making that has been made in the past few seasons, from sporting director Edu to those above and below him in the hierarchy.

Chelsea, meanwhile, are a dozen points clear in the league table, face Leicester in the FA Cup final this Saturday and have a shot at winning the trophy that is destined to forever elude Willian on May 29.

There can be no argument over the winners and losers from this particular move nearing the end of a campaign in which only one side of a perpetually divisive player has stood out.

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