De Bruyne a victim of Willian's rise to prominence

Posted by Phil Lythell

Jose Mourinho might have previously claimed that Chelsea would not be doing any business in the January transfer window, but hot on the heels of Nemanja Matic's return to the club, there is now Kevin De Bruyne's prospective move to Wolfsburg. The Belgian is reportedly in Germany preparing to undergo a medical ahead of a reported 18 million pound transfer, a fee that will go a long way to negate the 20.8 million pounds that the Blues paid Benfica for their Serbian midfielder.

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Losing the services of De Bruyne feels like a missed opportunity. The 22-year-old is clearly full of promise, as exhibited by his displays on loan for Werder Bremen last season where his goal tally reached double-figures. That was particularly impressive given he was playing for a struggling team that ended the season only a couple of places off the relegation zone. The over-riding disappointment, however, is that his talent was never borne out in a Chelsea shirt.

Part of that can be put down to the player's own deficiencies with his attitude questioned by Mourinho after an insipid performance against Swindon Town in the Capital One Cup. Even so, that might have been overlooked had Chelsea not had a surfeit of players in attacking midfield positions, one of whom has risen to the fore beyond most people's expectations.

If last year it was Cesar Azpilicueta who was the most pleasant surprise of the season for the Blues, this time around it is undoubtedly Willian. After a gentle introduction to English football, the Brazilian has found his feet and is currently commanding an almost automatic selection for the first team. Given the 30 million pound transfer fee that Chelsea shelled out for him, his performances probably shouldn't be too surprising, though the rapidity with which he has taken to life at Stamford Bridge has certainly been impressive.

The beginning of the previous campaign saw one of Willian's compatriots, Oscar, join the club, and despite a good start, he suffered a dip halfway through, understandably so given the change of culture and unfamiliar winter climate. Fast-forward 12 months and there has been no such dip for Willian. If anything, the Christmas period has seen him at his most productive, quite probably a consequence of the six years spent in the unforgiving climes of the Ukrainian league with Shakhtar Donetsk.

In his time at Shakhtar, amid a flurry of Brazilian imports, Willian was always the one that stood out the most and his displays against Chelsea in the Champions League brought him into sharper focus in Blues supporters' minds. Such was his impact in those two matches last season that his technical ability has never been in doubt. However, as with anyone of a slight build that is new to the Premier League, his appetite for the more industrial aspects of the English game remained a potential concern.

As it turns out, those concerns were wildly misplaced. As poignant as his attacking contributions to the team have been, even more encouraging has been the tenacity, drive and desire that he has brought to the team off the ball. Following his manager's instructions to the letter, he has been exceptionally quick to get behind the ball when possession is lost and he has shown an excellent knack of winning the ball back quickly when deep inside opposition territory. In tandem with Oscar, the pair have been instrumental in building pressure on the opponent's goal, leaving Eden Hazard to wreak his own particular brand of havoc with his scything runs and dancing feet.

Even more than De Bruyne, Juan Mata must have been looking on from the sidelines in recent matches with a distinct sense of jealousy. Though being a man of integrity and class, he would also doubtlessly concede that Willian's displays have vindicated Mourinho's selection in this regard. More now than ever, Mata knows that when he is afforded the chance to impress, he must grab it with both hands as his teammate is showing little sign of waning.

In the meantime, the challenge for Willian now is to maintain that level of performance as the going gets even tougher in the final third of the campaign. All things being well, Chelsea will hopefully have a relentless spring schedule combining a race for the Premier League title with an extended run in both the Champions League and the FA Cup. It is those periods when the men get well and truly sorted from the boys; when individual displays of a high standard are needed twice a week, give or take the odd rotation. The same can be said of all Chelsea's players -- particularly those of an attacking persuasion. But if Willian can continue to thrill, then he may well have solved the conundrum of Chelsea’s attacking midfield.

Under three successive managers, the Blues have struggled to deploy a trio of dazzling playmakers while still retaining solidity and defensive shape. Mourinho, however, might just have conquered it through utilising the natural engines of Willian and Oscar while imbuing a greater sense of responsibility in Hazard. The torrent of clean sheets in the last month would certainly point towards that, though the key switch has been the regular selection of Willian. His conscientiousness has ensured that Chelsea are not exposed on the flanks in the manner that plagued Mourinho earlier this campaign as well as Roberto Di Matteo and Rafael Benitez before him.

When Roman Abramovich signed the cheque that brought Willian to Stamford Bridge in the summer, there were not many who didn't think it was barmy to acquire yet another player to sit between the double pivot and the lone striker. Those doubts have now all but been assuaged.

And to think that he could have joined Tottenham instead. Still, at least they got Erik Lamela...

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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