Chelsea beware: How Willian transformed from Arsenal flop to Fulham leader

Willian once of Arsenal, now Fulham (Getty)
Willian once of Arsenal, now Fulham (Getty)

Few predicted Fulham would be flying so high this season, and even less tipped Willian to be one of the reasons why.

The Cottagers have been one of the stories of the season, and victory at home against Chelsea on Thursday will move them to within four points of the Champions League places. They have won four games in a row in all competitions since the World Cup and their transformation from yo-yo team to Euro contenders has been remarkable.

Just as impressive is the brilliant form of Willian, especially when you consider his best years looked behind him when he ripped up his Arsenal contract in 2021. The big question when the Brazilian joined Fulham on a free transfer on deadline day last summer was whether he could be anything like the player he once was at Chelsea?

Aged 34, he has been revitalised at Craven Cottage and faces his former club on Thursday as a key player in the Fulham side looking to inflict more pain on Graham Potter. Willian has emerged as a quiet leader in the dressing room and he will be tasked with helping Fulham take the game to Chelsea in the absence of suspended top scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic.

Carlos Vinicius is set to start up front in place of Mitrovic, but manager Marco Silva will ask Willian to help his side maintain their attacking threat.

Unexpected hit: Willian has been a player transformed, helping Fulham to seventh place (Getty Images)
Unexpected hit: Willian has been a player transformed, helping Fulham to seventh place (Getty Images)

“He has high quality and he is a top player,” said Silva. “I can say now, because I know it better each day. He is a great professional as well. Am I impressed with him? Yes. Am I surprised? No. He is a good guy, an important guy in our dressing room, even if sometimes he likes to be more quiet in his place.

“He is always there, giving his maximum. Not just on the ball, but off the ball, always with a big commitment. He is enjoying our club as well and, of course, when you have these type of players, who have made such very good careers, it’s important you have them if they can perform well.”

Chelsea fans know Willian well from his seven years at Stamford Bridge, but he is a different player now. He still operates out wide, however his game is based less on the express pace he had in his prime, when he won two Premier League titles, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the Europa League with the Blues.

Instead, Willian provides a cool head and experience. There is less emphasis on flicks and tricks, but rather doing the basics right and keeping the ball moving in the final third. He has started the last eight Premier League games, and Silva insists he had no doubts the talent was there when they had talks in the summer. “When I spoke the first time with him, it was enough. We know his quality,” said the Fulham boss.

Willian signed only a one-year contract with Fulham, following an unconvincing spell back in Brazil with Corinthians. Talks are set to talk place in the summer to decide if he remains at Craven Cottage next season, with both player and club relaxed about the situation. On the evidence so far, an extension seems a good bet. Both Fulham and Willian show no signs of slowing down.