The Anzhi Makhachkala forward is flexible, creative and quick, and should be moving into his prime at the age of 25
As far as Premier League clubs are concerned, in the great Anzhi Makhachkala sell-off there are two great prizes. One is Samuel Eto'o, who has made welcoming noises to his former club Internazionale as well as his former manager José Mourinho, now of Chelsea. According to Sky Italia, his representatives will meet with Inter, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur on Tuesday – while there have also been rumours of a move to Manchester United. The other is Willian, the Brazilian forward who is close to joining Tottenham in a £30m deal despite interest from Liverpool.
Willian followed the increasingly well-trodden path from Brazil to Shakhtar. He had played only 16 league games when, shortly before his 19th birthday, he decided to join the large Lusophone community in Donetsk. There, he prospered in Mircea Lucescu's attacking system, tending to operate on the left of a 4–2-3-1, cutting infield on to his stronger right foot. He is quick, deceptively powerful and, like most players the Romanian coach gets hold of early, intelligent in his use of the ball.
If there is a criticism of him it is that he doesn't score as many goals as he probably should – an average of roughly one every eight games over his career – although it should be borne in mind that he has always been a creator rather than a finisher. Shakhtar's style is to work the ball from the back of midfield wide and then return it to the middle for Luiz Adriano and Jádson then Henrikh Mkhitaryan; goalscoring was always a secondary consideration for Willian. That said, Douglas Costa and Alex Teixeira, who operated on the right in Willian's time, are each almost twice as prolific, although that may be as much to do with the right-sided skew created by Darijo Srna's forward sallies from right-back as anything else.
Willian moved to Anzhi last winter for £30m – roughly the fee they are seeking to recoup. Lucescu was clearly frustrated to see him go, but could do nothing once Willian's release clause had been triggered, and spoke darkly about "the huge pressure" he was under from "his agent and relatives". He is hardly the first player to seek big money at a club that seemingly offers little beyond the pay packet, but that does perhaps offer a warning to suitors.
Willian's time in Russia has not been a roaring success, but he has probably been the best attacking player in a miserable start to the season for Anzhi. Five games in – the first four of them played before the cut-backs were announced – they have only two points and are second bottom of the table.
He was left out for Saturday's 3-0 defeat at Zenit, presumably to protect him pending a move, but played in the other four games – operating on the right and in the centre of a 4‑2‑3‑1 and on the left of a 4‑3‑3 – and set up three of the four goals that Anzhi scored. According to figures from www.whoscored.com, no player in the Russian league completed more key passes or more successful dribbles in those four matches.
Although he could operate on the right, the likelihood is that Tottenham see Willian as a replacement for Gareth Bale, somebody who will start on the left and cut infield (it is just about possible that he could operate on the left with Bale used in a more central role, but there seems a major danger of them ending up occupying the same space). In terms of pace and directness, there are similarities, although Willian should not be thought of as a like-for-like replacement. Quite apart from anything else, he simply does not offer the same goals return – even if it is reasonable to expect he could become more prolific in a system that encouraged him to get into scoring positions.
At Liverpool, the idea would presumably be for Willian to ease the pressure on Philippe Coutinho, operating primarily from the left, although he could play on the right or behind Daniel Sturridge (or Luis Suárez if he stays). In that sense, Willian is a very modern player. Like Stevan Jovetic he can operate not only in what may be considered his natural position, but also adds depth to the squad by being flexible enough to play in a couple of other roles as well.
Whether he is quite worth £30m is another question, but with his pace and imagination, there are few Premier League sides Willian would not improve. At 25, he should be just moving into his prime. He is not Bale, but he is a very good, creative player