With the summer arrival of Thomas Partey, the emergence of Emile Smith Rowe and then the January loan acquisition of Martin Odegaard, Joe Willock found himself on the periphery of an already limited squad status. To benefit his development, it was decided he’d spend the remainder of the 2020/21 season on loan at relegation-threatened Newcastle United.
Born in Waltham Forest, Greater London — Willock is a product of Arsenal’s Hale End academy and joined the club at just 4-years-old. He made his first-team debut in the League Cup aged 18 and has gone on to make 78 first-team appearances (albeit many late cameos) in all competitions for The Arsenal.
The 21-year-old produced countless outstanding performances for the U23s under the guidance of Freddie Ljungberg. Willock has shown promise in the first team, shining brightest in the Europa League, where he scored 3 goals and created 3 assists in 5 European appearances this past season.
Although without regular minutes and a system that played to his strengths, the Hale End graduate never looked like the Newcastle loanee who’s just booked his place in the Premier League’s all-time longest goal-scoring streaks. Scoring in 7 consecutive games, he joins the likes of Thierry Henry and Ian Wright in 4th place.
The problem is that Willock’s skillset is difficult to fit into an already unbalanced team, which can often struggle to make positive contributions in passing moves. He isn’t a natural playmaker and arguably lacks the positional awareness to ply his trade in a double pivot — but the 21-year-old does boast an end product that is sorely missing from an Arsenal midfield offering very little goal threat. It’s well documented that Joe Willock scored more Premier League goals in his short time at Newcastle United than the entire Arsenal midfield combined.
Yet it’s not as straightforward as transplanting a player into another system and expecting the same results. Steve Bruce deploys a 5-3-2 formation at Newcastle, with the loanee occupying the right side of a midfield trio. Playing in a team that parks the bus, averages just 38% possession and thrives on the counterattack, means the majority of Wilock’s touches take place in his own half.
Nevertheless, the young Englishman acts as a fantastic outlet because he can travel long distances with the ball and sniff out goal scoring opportunities. When The Magpies have possession, Willock is often the furthest man forward — acting as another striker. Of all passes received during his time at St. James’ Park, 13% were in the right half-space and 9% in the opposition box.
Arteta’s Arsenal is a possession-based side that struggles to break down low block defences, and whose improvements since the turn of the year can be attributed to the inclusion of two playmakers in their starting 11. One of whom occupies the position Willock would seem most likely to fill. Fitting in the 21-year-old isn’t as easy as it may seem.
During his loan spell, Willock appeared 14 times (11 starts), scoring 8 goals from just 1.56 shots per 90, with an impressive 71% on target, and from an average distance of just 11.9 meters. Broken down into 6 headers (2 goals), 11 right footed shots (3 goals) and 5 left footed shots (3 goals).
The youngster outperformed his expected goals considerably, strongly suggesting the rich vein of goalscoring form isn’t sustainable in the long term.
To put some of the statistics into context, Thomas Partey is shooting at a similar rate for Arsenal but not surprisingly, from further out (29 meters), and with just 15% accuracy. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s shot profile is more akin to Willock’s, with an average distance of 12 meters and non-penalty xG per shot of 0.16 (amassed over a greater sample of games), they’re almost identical — in many ways Joe Willock profiles as a forward.
The 21-year-old is deceptively tall at 6’1″. The manager said at one point this season “If we put bodies in the box, we’ll score goals — it’s pure maths” but Arteta’s Arsenal can often be guilty of spamming crosses to no one. Willock has shown at Newcastle that he is more than capable of being an aerial threat and can arrive in the opposition box at the right time, to get on the end of crosses.
But at what cost? Is his all-round game good enough for a team that wants to be in the Champions League? His passing repertoire is limited — Willock isn’t a player who offers ball progression (2.60 per 90 – 14th percentile) or incisive passing (0.64 passes into the penalty area per 90 – 66th percentile) that’ll open up tightly packed opposition defences.
While his defensive application isn’t in question (2.60 tackles per 90 – 74th percentile / 2.21 interceptions – 97th percentile), the 21-year-old can switch off and will need to improve his awareness quickly if he’s going to have any chance of starting in a midfield two that sits in front of a back four.
Freddie Ljungberg recently said, “If you use Joe Willock as a box-to-box midfielder, he comes late into the box, he will score goals and he’s just as quick as Aubameyang when he opens up his legs.”
It’s hard to disagree having watched him over the past few months — but everything we’ve learned so far would suggest his strengths are ideal for a midfield 3 in a 4-3-3 rather than Arteta’s current 4-2-3-1.
If the Arsenal manager wants to keep the dual creativity that changed his teams’ results overnight — Willock can’t play as a #10, and due to his defensive shortcomings and lack of ball progression — he probably can’t play in a midfield two either.
And so the question is — can he score enough goals or create enough uncertainty in his opponents to offset his shortcomings and warrant a potential change in formation, or should Arsenal cash in on what some perceive as just being a purple patch?
The youngster managed 3 goals coming off the bench for Newcastle, and although the idea of a super-sub is appealing — how much value would Arteta get from a squad player, when the alternative is to sell him for funds that would go a long way in improving the current starting 11?
Whatever the club decides, Mikel Arteta and Edu have a difficult decision to make.
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