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Arsenal’s move for Willian has the potential to be a costly mistake

Signing Willian could be another expensive mistake, showing a concerning lack of imagination

Arsenal v Chelsea - FA Cup Final Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

On Saturday, Arsenal won the FA Cup (remember that? It was great!), ensuring Europa League football for the next campaign, and adding more money to Arsenal’s disposal to spend on improving the squad. On Monday morning, it emerged that Arsenal were prepared to spend a significant chunk of that money on signing Chelsea’s Willian on a free transfer.

Willian, who turns 32 on Sunday, wants a three-year deal, with Chelsea only offering two. Willian, of course, is represented by Kia Joorabchian, whose clients David Luiz and Cedric Soares both signed contract extensions last month. Willian’s current contract is for £120,000 per week, and one can expect that to be upped to £150,000 to £200,000 a week, with a healthy signing bonus, as a free agent, and a healthy commission for the agent, Joorabchian, who is good friends with the technical director, Edu.

Indeed, that component of the deal cannot be ignored. Some have argued that it makes sense for Arsenal to utilize the existing relationships between the Football Executives and their agent pals because it allows Arsenal to complete necessary deals easily and expediently. Yet, that is seemingly not only becoming a perhaps useful tool but a preferred strategy: David Luiz, Cedric Soares, and Pablo Marí were all deals completed off the basis of relationships with agents. And while each deal in a vacuum makes some degree of sense, the net effect is making Arsenal an older, more expensive side.

This is, of course, more ironic because Arsenal have spent the last two seasons trying to offload Mesut Özil because he is such an expensive detriment to Arsenal’s finances. The club are foregoing a fee from AS Roma for Henrikh Mkhitaryan to get his wages off the books, and to avoid paying a bonus, because again, it is a detriment to the finances. Yet Mkhitaryan and Willian are quite similar players in their output.

The outlay for Willian would be significant—at least £10m a year plus bonuses—for a player who would be contracted in his age 32, 33, and 34 season. With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang also 31, there is cause for concern for the age profile of Arsenal’s attacking line. Furthermore, it is another short-term fix, from a club that has increasingly sought short-term fixes while finishing in the lower Europa League and midtable places. Arsenal are not a Willian away from becoming a top 4 club; Arsenal are several moves away from being a top 4 club, and this is a longer-term overall project. The move, then, is to sign younger players, who have both the potential to improve, and have resale value, neither of which apply to Willian.

Finally, there is a concerning lack of imagination in targeting Willian, and it seems fair to ask if the player would be a transfer target if his agent wasn’t friendly with Arsenal’s technical director. While Willian is a good player (one that I quite rate), who has Premier League experience, there is nothing necessarily special about Willian’s profile in the position he plays. He does several things quite well, but nothing at necessarily an elite level, and it seems that it would be quite possible for Arsenal to sign another player in European football with a similar skillset who would be younger and cheaper.

Arsenal have suffered from a series of short-term decisions, both in their decisions in player recruitment, and even in hiring Unai Emery. Appointing Mikel Arteta seemed to indicate that Arsenal were in for a longer-term rebuilding project, but there is still some disconnect between what Arsenal need on the pitch, and the decisions that are made at the boardroom level.