Over the past few days I've had a few people ask me about the sense of Arsenal potentially bringing in Willian on a free transfer. The first time I was asked, it was just a fun text conversation. After the second time, it felt like there might be enough interest in the topic that it merited a column, or at least part of one. After seeing Gab Marcotti get it wrong on ESPN, with no apparent arguments other than the presence of Aubameyang and Lacazette, The rest of the column will focus more broadly on the transfer rumors and fantasy implications that seem plausible at this early stage in the window.
I'm struggling to understand why this is such a mysterious move by the Gunners. Yes, funds are limited. No, wide attacker isn't their highest priority need. Yes, they spent a boatload of money on Nicolas Pepe (who plays the same position) last summer and had moments even if he wasn't consistent enough for most. So, how do we get to this being a logical move? The answer is, as is so often the case in life, it depends.
When I say "it depends" I mean that the worth of the deal depends entirely on the circumstances surrounding it. What circumstances?
- Cost: It has been reported that Willian’s Arsenal deal will be £100k/week 3-year deal. I have also seen mention of a £10m sign on bonus but can’t find a credible link to confirm that part. Regardless of the sign-on bonus, if that report is accurate then that seems like an incredibly reasonable price to pay for an accomplished player, even if he's on the back side of his career. Just a reminder that this is someone who has managed to average 6 goals and 6 assists per season as a part-time player over the past four seasons (see minutes below).
- Role: Willian was not a guaranteed starter at Chelsea this past season. In 2019-2020, he played a total of approximately 2500 minutes out of a possible 3420 Premier League minutes. The three seasons before that he played 2091, 1874, and 1534 minutes in the league respectively without any agitating over his role that I remember reading or hearing about. Arsenal have a lot of high potential young players in the wide attacking positions but having a proven veteran who can help guide them and isn't going to demand starter minutes seems like the type of move that a winning side makes.
- Opportunity Cost: The final question is what the cost of this move is in terms of moves not made or playing time not given to players who need to develop. If you look at what Arsenal need this summer, the £5m or so that they will spend on Willian's wages isn't going to get them the star they need for the spine of their team. This is a minor amount of money, relatively speaking, and one that could easily be made up by selling a fringe squad member if it is absolutely necessary to balance the books with every transaction. They also appear to be continuing to pursue needed reinforcements at other positions (see Gabriel below and the persistent Partey rumors). As far as opportunity cost as it regards playing time for others, it feels like Reiss Nelson is the loser in this situation with perhaps a side of Joe Willock. Of the young attackers, Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah are going to get their minutes based on what they've shown as will Gabriel Martinelli once he's healthy again. None of them regularly feature on the right side of the attack where Willian plays meaning that the Brazilian's presence shouldn't matter one way or another to their prospects. Reiss Nelson and, to a much lesser extent, Joe Willock and Ainsley Maitland-Niles do show up on the right when Pepe isn't starting. My, admittedly non-expert, opinion is that none of these three is destined to be a star as a wide attacker. Willock and Maitland-Niles seem more suited for central midfield and wing-back roles respectively while Nelson feels a lot like Alex Iwobi 2.0 in that he clearly has some talent but doesn't appear likely to be a future starter in an Arsenal side challenging for the top four.
If cost isn't prohibitive, the expected role under ideal circumstances makes sense and isn't too different than the average number of minutes Willian has played over the past four seasons at Chelsea, and the move neither prevents another move nor blocks a rising star then I'm not sure what the objection might be. Perhaps there are people thinking that Willian's big name means that he'll be the presumed starter over Pepe and block Pepe's growth and I just don't see that. Arsenal played 5400 minutes across all competitions this season and, presuming that the number is similar next season, there should be more than enough minutes wide on the right to go around with Ozil no longer likely to be selected there (or anywhere else) and Joe Willock and Ainsley Maitland-Niles getting their minutes elsewhere.
The signing is certainly more than a little tone deaf in light of Arsenal's announcement of layoffs today but from a football perspective, it makes all the sense in the world to me if Arsenal are attempting to field a squad with sufficient depth and talent to compete on multiple fronts over the course of a full season rather than being merely a “cup team”.
Nathan Ake and Ferran Torres to City
The financial counterpoint to Arsenal bringing in Willian on a free as a valuable reserve/potential above-average starter in the event of injury is on display at Manchester City. The ideal version of building depth in your squad is that you can spend on young players who are rising and could be at the club for the next 6-8 years if everything goes well. Perhaps even evolving into starters if their development goes particularly well.
In Ferran Torres and Nathan Ake, City have spent just over £60m on two players who are more likely to be reserves than starters for the next season or two at least. Given what is out there in the rumor mill about City continuing to pursue options at the high end of the CB market, Ake looks like very costly insurance for Aymeric Laporte rather than being a likely starter himself.
Torres, as with all recent attacking additions at City, will have to serve his apprenticeship behind the likes of Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, and Bernardo Silva as he looks to fill the gap left by the departure of Leroy Sané.
Both are smart acquisitions for City and represent good uses of the spending power advantage that they enjoy over just about everyone in the world game right now. For fantasy managers, it is worth noting that all three of the players that we’ve discussed so far, while all having great potential fantasy value based on their skills, are unlikely to get the type of opportunity that they’d need to be worthy being in your squad on a regular basis barring injuries.
Other News and Notes
- Chelsea are targeting Giminez and Reguilon – Makes all the sense in the world but one wonders who is going to buy all of the excess players the Blues are going to have if they complete these two deals (or similar ones for highly regarded CB and LB options) in addition to Werner, Ziyech, Havertz, and a goalkeeper to be named later. I know they’ve been out of the market for a couple of windows due to sanctions but this seems to be the exact type of thing that FFP was supposed to be preventing, isn’t it?
- Spurs and others are in on Said Benrahma of Brentford. I can’t say I watched a ton of Championship action but the stats are there and he looked like the real deal watching him in the playoffs. Here’s hoping he goes somewhere that he is guaranteed a starting spot rather than Arsenal or Spurs or somewhere that he’ll be part of a rotation. I’ll do it and make the lazy countryman comparison and say Mahrez 2.0 is definitely in play here.
- Arsenal are rumored to be leading the chase for Brazilian CB Gabriel for a pretty reasonable sum given the player’s reputation. If this report is accurate and Arsenal end up adding Gabriel, Saliba, Willian, and Ceballos (on another year loan) with only £25m in outgoing transfer fees (my understanding is that Ceballos cost wages plus a £3m loan fee last season) then that’s a great summer on a budget. If they can add Partey (or similar) for roughly the same amount as the combined fees they might recoup by selling off Guendouzi and Torreira then you’re looking at a negligible net spend while adding talent, youth, and experience.
- The Kyle Walker-Peters and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg swap-that-isn’t-a-swap between Southampton and Spurs seems to be on. Hojbjerg isn’t very interesting as a fantasy player and I’m not sure about Walker-Peters. My original interest in him was when he looked like he might be playing as a wingback in Pochettino’s Spurs system in which wingbacks were very fantasy-friendly. Southampton hasn’t traditionally been very fantasy-friendly for outside backs so outside of guessing at the right week to pick up a clean sheet, Walker-Peters feels like he’ll be over-drafted/priced based on his Spurs pedigree.
- Manchester United appear to be stalled in their pursuit of Jadon Sancho which is great news for those who want to see Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Martial get a shot at starting together for a full season with Bruno Fernandes pulling the strings. Adding Sancho presumably mutes Greenwood’s value as a fantasy option next season and cuts into United’s ability to spend to improve where they really need it, at goalkeeper, center back, and holding midfielder. It still all feels like posturing between Dortmund and United so I wouldn’t be at all shocked if the move still went through but, for now at least, the news is good for those interested in Mason Greenwood’s future.
Here’s hoping we have some more concrete news soon to report on. The transfer rumors are fun but it’s the analysis of actual moves that creates the most off-season fun.