Unless Chelsea quite miraculously win an FA Cup-UEFA Champions League double this season, the 2015-16 campaign will widely be regarded as a failure.
Guus Hiddink has done a fantastic job since stepping in for Jose Mourinho in December, and the Blues are still unbeaten domestically during his second spell in charge. But regardless of the drastic upturn in form, it’s been an overall disaster.
Gary Cahill, ever the warm personality in the media, has accepted this. Privately, so will almost every other player he shares a dressing room with. Unless the unthinkable is achieved, Chelsea will not play Champions League football in 2016-17 and, as a result, could well lose a couple of key assets—most notably the out-of-sorts (but still brilliant) Eden Hazard.
But Cahill has pointed to a glimmer of positivity to emerge from the wreckage, correctly identifying the expedited development of Chelsea’s burgeoning crop of young talent as a reason to smile.
“[Bertrand] Traore has come on and done well and Ruben [Loftus-Cheek] has a new contract which I think is a great move, I’ve spoke highly of Ruben since I first started training with him,” he told the Telegraph's Jason Burt recently.
A third breakthrough candidate, Kenedy, has featured sporadically at left-back and scored the Premier League’s quickest goal of the season (39 seconds) on Tuesday night against Norwich City.
“They’re there on merit. They’re good enough to be involved and to play,” Cahill added. And the fans—who have had so few reasons to smile this campaign—have enjoyed watching the three players spread their wings when an appropriate time has come about.
Under Mourinho this sort of thing did not happen—despite the board’s wishes to the contrary—and supporters are revelling in the success of younglings stamping their marks.
But blooding youth isn’t the only plus point Chelsea can take from this difficult season; Willian, and the form, consistency, attitude and, of course, incredible talent he has shown since August, is perhaps the single most positive storyline to emanate from Stamford Bridge this year.
It would take a truly herculean effort from one of the Brazilian’s colleagues to usurp him in the club’s Player of the Season voting, one would imagine. When the chips were down and the team were playing oh-so poorly, Willian was the sole shining light—the only one who refused to dip his head and play to his club’s form.
Where Hazard floundered, Diego Costa remonstrated, Cesc Fabregas more or less gave up and even Thibaut Courtois lost his sheen of invincibility, Willian plugged away. He toiled and tried, keeping Chelsea afloat with individual brilliance, and he developed a stunning free-kick ability that may well have kept the Blues from dropping into the relegation zone pre-Christmas.
Willian hasn’t actually scored a free-kick since November, but the six he scored between August and then undoubtedly kept the Blues afloat. When the usual suspects could not hit form or find the back of the net, the Brazilian regularly bailed them out.
It’s perhaps no surprise that if any one player were to belie the team’s form under Mourinho, it would be Willian. The Portuguese's hardworking style and grating personality creates ardent supporters and soldiers on his playing staff, but it also ultimately alienates the masses. Willian was one of his soldiers; he did the dirty-work role opposite Hazard, tearing up and down the pitch, tracking runners and protecting the defence—all in addition to his critical attacking play.
With Hiddink in charge, under whom the shackles have been thrown off, this team is playing football again. Hazard is tentatively approaching something you’d call form, Costa and Fabregas are purring and even Branislav Ivanovic has put in some good performances—albeit when forced into a different position because of injuries at centre-back.
A return of 16 goals in six home games is spectacular no matter the team, and although the Blues have had a few too many draws mixed into their unbeaten domestic record under their interim boss, things have improved tenfold.
And still Willian is the key to victory.
He hasn’t sloped off or withdrawn under the new manager. Nor have his contributions become less noticeable. He continues to spearhead the attack, driving from deep and travelling long distances with the ball. And his killer touch in front of goal goes from strength to strength.
In the Blues’ narrow victory over Arsenal on Jan. 24, it was Willian sprinting from deep, carrying the ball out from defensive positions and starting attacks; against Crystal Palace on Jan. 3, he netted a scorcher and dictated the final-third play; and against Southampton on Feb. 27, he was the offensive spark that eventually led to a defence that had recorded six consecutive clean sheets being breached.
His usurping of Fabregas on the set-piece totem pole has led to an increased number of goals and assists, naturally, but we should not exclusively measure his effectiveness by these figures. The truth is, he is the heartbeat of Chelsea’s attack—more so even than a rejuvenated Fabregas once again firing off channel passes and dinked balls in behind.
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WhoScored.com (EPL + UCL combined)
In this regard, his 2015-16 has been similar to Hazard’s 2014-15 in that he has dragged his team through the mud at times, keeping their noses ahead. It’s all relative, of course—Hazard led Chelsea to a title, while the best Willian could lead them to is arguably UEFA Europa League football—but the former played in a team without chaos and wreckage, enhancing the levels achievable.
Cahill was right to point out the emergence of youth as a positive from this extremely disappointing season, but the catapulting of Willian to the next echelon has arguably been the best thing to happen. He has been one of the players of the 2015-16 campaign despite spending half of it hovering above the relegation zone—a fact that should not be forgotten when the end-of-season accolades are being handed out.