Mesut Ozil could only watch on - we can presume he actually watched - as a man one year his senior, operating in a new role on his club debut, stole the show for Arsenal on the opening day of the new Premier League season.
At 32, Willian is no spring chicken, yet in 76 minutes he produced a performance that not only justified his manager's insistence on signing him, but showcased exactly what Mikel Arteta has been missing throughout his short spell in charge.The Brazilian forward is not the answer to Arsenal's creative chasm. This much must be made clear. What Arsenal need if they are to regain their former status in the Premier League is an operator meticulously programmed to be nothing more, nothing less than a number ten.
However, until that player walks through the door, Willian won't be a shabby stop-gap.
The setup Arsenal employed in their 3-0 win over Fulham did not contain such a player. It was the same shape and style that the club used in their trophy winning success at Wembley: a 3-4-3 formation with floating wing-backs and a fluid front line.
While previously, the spaces picked up by the likes of Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Hector Bellerin can be either overlaps or darts in-field, the creative nous of those players would mean often mean there were bodies in forward areas merely for the sake of it. No actual purpose other than to overload areas of the pitch to create space in wide areas.
Such an approach caused uncertainty in the opposition, but there was no one player drifting in between the lines to exploit that defensive disruption. Lining up on the right-hand side, Willian was the one who floated across the Cottagers' back four. Previously, this was Alexandre Lacazette's remit: coming short in an attempt to link the lines, but not having the skillset to benefit from those positions.
Willian did this throughout the afternoon, sitting in front of the four-man midfield and seeking the ball whenever a turnover in possession took place. Naturally, being a winger doesn't mean you can't fit into the playmaker bracket. His eye is always on the next pass and the next phase, whether this is down the byline or tucked in behind Lacazette.
Two assits (arguably should have been three) attest to that. Of his 26 attempted passes - 19 of which were in the opponents' half - he recorded over 96% success rate. It was him who the midfielders looked to feed whenever their heads went up.
For good reason, too. Given more freedom to operate than his Chelsea days, he drifted into the pockets of space where he could cause danger - wherever those could be. Nicolas Pepe, on the other hand, is a winger who likes to cut inside on the majority of occasions, a tendency Willian doesn't overindulge in.
Finding someone with the Premier League experience who can take it upon themselves to assume more creative responsibility, even at this stage of their careers, was never going to be easy. But with Arteta's necessity for added flair in that area of the pitch metaphorically falling on this lap, he couldn't refuse.
As is, Willian is the man who absolve him of this glaring deficiency. Key to note of course, is that this is just for now. Chelsea fans will be quick to remind their London rivals that performances such as Saturday will come about fleetingly. Perhaps, however, an alteration in role will ensure Arsenal see more of the Craven Cottage Willian compared to the irregular Stamford Bridge version.
Perhaps, too, the change in environment will invigorate the Brazilian for the coming season and beyond, one where he has more mentoring responsibilities and isn't lost in a sea of multi-million pound forward talent.
A caveat to all the praise is, of course, that the Gunners just took on a desperately poor side who, already it seems, face an uphill battle to beat the drop. Then again, Willian has shown he can do it against the very best this league, and beyond, has to offer.
Source : 90min