It has been an excellent season for Real Sociedad, finishing sixth in La Liga and qualifying directly for the Europa League. An important player in their success has been the forward, Willian José who is the focus in this analysis. The 28-year-old forward has scored 11 goals for Real Sociedad in La Liga this season, ending the season as their top goal-scorer. In January 2020, he was linked with a move to Barcelona and Tottenham Hotspur but the move did not materialise. In this tactical analysis, we will explore the tactics behind how Willian is used at Real Sociedad. This scout report will identify the key attributes of Willian’s game during the 2019/20 season.
Willian Jose’s role
It is worth providing some context on Willian’s role in the Real Sociedad team. He predominantly plays as a central striker closely supported by Martin Ödegaard, Mikel Oyarzabal, and Portu in a 4-2-3-1 formation. To effectively connect with these players, Willian will position in the half-space on the left side so he can link with Ödegaard and Oyarzabal.
Interestingly, Willian has only accrued 2,031 minutes in La Liga this season, equating to approximately 22 matches, suggesting he is not always the first choice. However, this makes his goal tally even more impressive. Imanol Alguacil, the manager, prefers to play with one striker and Willian is usually rotated with Alexander Isak. This means that one striker must sit on the bench and Isak is providing Willian with stiff competition for his place.
The preference of playing with one striker allows Willian to showcase his excellent link-up play with the creative players at La Real.
Willian will consistently be available for a forward pass into his feet when central midfielders or central defenders are in-possession. He positions to show for the ball behind the midfield line or comes into line with the opposition midfield to receive a pass. Taking opponents out of the game with the pass. Real Sociedad look to utilise the third man run concept when they build their attacks, as the image below shows. In this process, Willian is normally the second man and the third man is normally Ödegaard, Oyarzabal, or Portu. These players are mobile ball carriers and allow the team to progress up the pitch quickly.
Real Sociedad will use the option to play into Willian as a tactic to progress their attack. They do this to move the opposition out of the areas they want to exploit – the wide areas. An outcome of playing into Willian forces the opposition narrow up and become more centrally compact. This creates more space on the outside of the pitch. Willian has to use his excellent technical ability to play out of these tight areas into the wide players or full-backs.
A key feature of Willian’s link-up play is his ability to play off one-touch creatively. This allows him to combine intricately with advancing team-mates. The image below shows him receiving with his back to goal. He keeps the attack moving forwards by finding a way to flick the ball past defenders to teammates supporting him.
Eye for goal
As we have mentioned, La Real like to exploit the wide areas and finish their attacks down the sides by putting crosses into the penalty box. It is a testament to Alguacil that he has built an attractive playing style to suit his players.
A lot of Willian’s goals come from first time finishes inside the penalty box. All 11 goals this season have come inside the penalty area. Eight have been right-footed finishes and one left-footed. An outstanding strength of Willian’s is his ability to get on the end of and receive crosses inside a congested penalty area. Seven of his goals have come from crosses this season, highlighting the quality of his movement and finishing.
An excellent example of this was against Villarreal, shown in the image below. In this move, the attack had been built centrally by the midfield players. The width provider has been given more room because the full-back has narrowed off to provide compactness. This allows the wide player to receive and cross from inside the penalty area. As the Villarreal defenders are dropping back and being drawn towards the ball, Willian positions in the middle of the goal. He realises the space is not available for a cross to be played between the last defender and goalkeeper and he checks back to find a new passing lane. This is a very intelligent move. He steps back into the space that has been created by the defenders who have dropped towards their own goal. An accurate pullback leads to a first-time finish for Willian.
Last season, Real Sociedad were a team that pressed the opposition regularly. This is highlighted by their PPDA score of 8.27, the fourth-highest in La Liga during the 2019-20 season. Predominantly playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation means Willian has a responsibility to defend from the front.
Willian’s intensity to press is not as high as the mobile players behind him. His role is to make the oppositions build-up play predictable, as shown in the image below. Firstly, he should not allow the centre-backs a free pass, there should always be pressure. If the ball is switched between the centre-backs he must angle his run and position to stop the opposition switching through the centre back again. This forces the centre-back with the ball towards his full-back. La Real can trap the full-back to the touchline in this situation using the wide player.
Helping the counter
Willian can play various roles in the transition from defence to attack. To initiate a counter-attack, he is a reliable player to receive a forward pass and link with others quickly. La Real will look to counter-attack through their pacey players like Portu. If the counter-attack is going through Portu down the right side, Willian will look to make a run into the left channel. This pulls defenders away from Portu. Leaving him with space to attack or a 1 vs 1 with a defender. Portu is also likely to attempt a cross so it also creates the angle for a crossing opportunity for Willian to attack.
If the team lose the ball high up the pitch. Counter pressing is not something that Willian specialises in. As the opposition starts to counter-attack, he recovers into a central position in line with the opposition centre-backs. This gives Real Sociedad a forward pass when they regain the ball.
When Willian positions in central areas he will attract central defenders to mark him tightly. This can draw fouls from over-eager defenders when the ball is passed into Willian. This is a key attribute for a striker of Willian’s ilk. Gaining free-kicks in key areas provides defensive relief for the team. With defenders keen to get tight to him, it can also give the team different options. For example, if defenders are drawn out of their position, space can be exploited by runners from deeper areas.
Where can he improve?
As we know, Willian scores a lot of his goals inside the penalty box. An area where he can improve is his decision making when he has the ball just outside the penalty box. In the image below, he chooses to shoot and the shot is blocked. This leaves the team open to the counter-attack. As we can see, he has a teammate in a great position if Willian can play the pass which would result in a goal-scoring opportunity.
Identifying these opportunities to combine around the edge of the penalty box will increase Willian’s contribution to the team making him a more valuable member. He should aim to play to his strengths in these situations and a creative through ball or he could pass the ball into a player in a crossing position. He could then make a forward run into the penalty box. We have seen him do this at times to good effect, as shown in the image below.
To conclude this tactical analysis piece in the form of a scout report, Willian demonstrates impressive attacking attributes. His link-up play and movement inside the penalty box show him as a player who can link the play between midfield and attack and finish attacks. When teammates provide low crosses into the penalty box he is extremely effective at finishing the move off. He has excellent movement to evade markers and find space inside the penalty box.
With a year left on his contract, there may be admirers who would be willing to take him away from Real Sociedad. His style of play certainly not suit every team. The ability to play a lone striker role is challenging and with the right support around him, he can be extremely effective. Teammates with trickery and pace to attack from deeper positions are perfect compliments for Willian.