As he stood on the Wembley touchline, waiting to replace Eden Hazard in the 91st minute of the FA Cup final, Chelsea forward Willian felt a friendly pat from a manager he likes and trusts.
But it wasn’t his own, Antonio Conte. Amid the disappointment of watching Manchester United drifting towards defeat, Jose Mourinho’s hand had still found the Brazilian’s shoulder. Conte stood a few yards away, oblivious and uncaring, his attention fully trained on the pitch.
It was a surreal moment that perfectly crystallised Willian’s contrasting relationships with his former and current managers, and underlined why talk of a reunion with Mourinho at United has bubbled away for more than a year.
For the avoidance of any doubt, Willian made his disdain for Conte perfectly clear the following day, obscuring the Italian with trophy emojis in a team celebration photo published on his official Instagram account that was widely viewed and shared on social media before being taken down.
His feelings are justifiable, even if his actions were not. Conte has rarely considered Willian a key member of Chelsea’s starting XI over the last two seasons, often benched him after good performances and ostracised two of his best friends at the club, Diego Costa and David Luiz.
Mourinho, on the other hand, has remained in regular contact since leaving Stamford Bridge and always has a smile and a hug for him when Chelsea face United. An informal attempt was made to bring Willian to Old Trafford last summer, only for the Blues to shut it down.
“There were a few conversations with my agent,” he later explained to Goal. “I worked with Mourinho and I became his friend as well. He likes me a lot and I like him a lot as a coach and as a person. He has put his trust in me and in my work, and I was very grateful to him.”
Willian’s social media misdemeanour does not make his exit this summer inevitable. His big problem at Chelsea is with Conte, and the Italian is not likely to be a problem for much longer. Yet the strength of Mourinho’s admiration presents an interesting quandary, as well as an intriguing potential opportunity.
Anthony Martial got slightly more time than Willian on the Wembley pitch on Saturday, replacing Jesse Lingard in the 73rd minute with United desperately seeking an equaliser, but the Frenchman’s promising Old Trafford career has ground to a halt under Mourinho in a manner that Chelsea will recognise all too well.
Martial has started just six times in all competitions since the January signing of Alexis Sanchez, while having his attitude and application publicly questioned by Mourinho. Such criticisms may be valid, but the memory of Kevin De Bruyne is too fresh at Stamford Bridge for Chelsea to rely on their former manager’s assessment.
The potential swap deal that has been floated has its merits.
Mourinho is under huge pressure to challenge Manchester City next season and it is arguable that his only unqualified successes in the transfer market at United to date have been Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic — two players he knew well at Chelsea. Willian represents a similarly known quantity, is ready to win now and would fill one of United’s biggest positional needs on the right flank.
Chelsea, meanwhile, are looking for regeneration. Their ageing squad has now missed out on Champions League football twice in the last three seasons and key players Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois are watching closely for signs of ambition in the club’s transfer targets before they commit to new contracts.
Unable to shop at the very top end of a hyper-inflated market, Chelsea’s priority has to be acquiring elite young talent undervalued elsewhere. Martial, the world’s most expensive teenager when United signed him for £36m in September 2015 and scorer of 11 Premier League goals in his debut season in England under Louis van Gaal, is a thrillingly tantalising reclamation project.
Simply taking United’s cash for Willian and condemning themselves to the same level of backlash that greeted Matic’s defection to Old Trafford last summer is not a desirable option for the Chelsea hierarchy. The days when it was in their interests to solve Mourinho’s problems are long gone.
Acquiring a prospect with Martial’s potential in exchange would enable Marina Granovskaia to soften the blow of Willian’s departure with fresh talent, just as Arsenal did in getting Henrikh Mkhitaryan for Sanchez in January. And while there is a risk that Eden Hazard’s preference for playing from the left might complicate the new arrival’s integration, Martial could just as easily prove a ready-made replacement for the Belgian if Real Madrid consummate their long-standing interest this summer.
Mourinho would be at best reckless and at worst foolish to sanction sending Martial to Stamford Bridge for Willian, but then he has prioritised current ability over future potential throughout his managerial career.
Chelsea’s hope — and United’s fear — should be that they can be the beneficiaries of the same impatience that once led them to discard De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah. If a deal for Martial is possible, reuniting Willian with his favourite manager would be a bitter pill well worth swallowing.