With Joe Willock slated to make his debut for Newcastle against Southampton. The staff here at Coming Home Newcastle reached out to some writers who have been following Willock and his time at Arsenal for some time now.
Our two Arsenal experts are Dylan Walsh, a freelance sports journalist who is a massive Arsenal fan; and Aaron Lerner, the site manager at The Short Fuse, a fellow SB Nation site. We grilled them on everything from strengths, to player comps, to why Willock has failed to hold a spot in Arsenal’s first team.
Coming Home Newcastle: Joe Willock has joined Newcastle for at least the remainder of the season, what were your initial thoughts when you heard the news he was going out on loan to Newcastle?
Dylan: I was extremely pleased when I heard the news that he was heading out on loan. Going into deadline day, Willock was one of the top players I wanted to see Arsenal try and get out on loan as a way to progress his development. Whilst Newcastle play a completely opposite style of football to Arsenal, Steve Bruce could really do with a player like Willock, so you can understand why the deal was done.
Aaron: I wasn’t surprised when I saw he was heading out on loan. Really, I was expecting him, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Reiss Nelson all to head out (but Nelson didn’t). Arsenal had to trim the squad in the January window, that’s why you saw all those contracts canceled and the loans that you did.
CHN: What type of player is Newcastle getting in Joe Willock?
Dylan: In Willock, Newcastle are getting a hungry midfielder who is always looking to get the ball forward. In the Europa League this season, he was arguably our best player in the group stage phase of the competition based on his ability to drive up the pitch and exploit areas that could lead to either a chance or a goal, and in doing so, managed three goals in the Europa League for us.
Aaron: Willock is an interesting player because he’s got a wide range of things he does pretty well, but I’m not sure he’s “elite” with any of them. His forward movement (runs without the ball) is very good, he progresses the ball well, he’s a good enough passer, he works hard without the ball. As a result, it’s not clear what his best position in the formation is / what role suits him best. He plays centrally, that’s for sure, but how deep or how far up the pitch is an open question.
CHN: What’s Willock’s greatest strength right now?
Dylan: His greatest strength without question is his ball-carrying abilities. Willock is a type of midfielder who will always try and push the direction of play towards the attack and aim to help teammates getting in the right areas to create important chances. Willock is also a very impressive athlete who covers a lot of ground and at great speed, a useful asset for a team looking to count opposition on the counter.
Aaron: I think his off-ball movement from the “second-level” into the box either to receive passes from wide areas or to combine with teammates on quick one-twos around the edge of the box is what sets him apart. Because his runs come from deeper positions, he’s hard to track, and he’s able to unbalance defenders.
CHN: What is an area you think Willock could improve on while he is on loan?
Dylan: An area Willock can do with improving on whilst out on loan is his decision making. Whilst he is an impressive ball carrier who has the right idea on what to do with the ball, his final decision has occasionally let him down, resulting in losing the ball or gifting opponents opportunities to regroup and attack,
Aaron: I think he needs to improve his passing range and the ability to hit more difficult passes. That’s not to say he’s a bad passer, just that his passing is a bit basic. He’s not going to unlock a defense by threading a pass between three people, he’s much likelier to pass to a teammate nearby, move through that space himself, and get it back. Adding the ability to create with his passes would bring another facet to his game.
CHN: Why has Willock struggled for playing time at Arsenal despite having a lot of appearances?
Dylan: The main reason why Willock has yet to nail down regular first-team minutes with Arsenal is simply because he is a player who is still raw and too inexperienced to be entrusted with a starting XI spot in the Premier League. Although Willock started some games under Unai Emery last season, it was clear to see that he just was not ready to make the step-up to regular football in the Premier League.
Aaron: I think Willock hasn’t nailed down a spot at Arsenal because it’s not totally clear what that spot would be, and he’s got better competition at every spot through the middle of the park. He’s not going to displace Granit Xhaka or Thomas Partey at the base of the midfield. He doesn’t have the individual creativity to play where Emile Smith Rowe has now claimed the spot. It’s really not clear where he “fits” on the pitch.
CHN: Do you think Willock has a future at Arsenal or could you see him getting sold in the next couple of seasons?
Dylan: I think a lot of that will have to do with how he develops at Newcastle. When Willock was coming through the academy and making waves across the Arsenal fandom, there was a real buzz about him and how he could replace the skills lost when Aaron Ramsey departed for Juventus in 2018. Willock certainly has the technical and athletic ability to have a future Arsenal player, but this loan spell at Newcastle will be a good test as to if he is capable mentally of playing at the highest level in England.
Aaron: I’m not sure. I think I lean towards him being sold. Honestly, I don’t know if he’s good enough to be an Arsenal player — I guess the loan will help the club figure that out. He’s a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. And I don’t know if that’s good enough for a club that, in their eyes, should be challenging for the Champions League every year.
CHN: Newcastle fans are excited about Willock’s ability to carry the ball forward. Is there an underrated quality Willock has that fans should also be excited about?
Dylan: One underrated quality about Willock is his finishing. For a midfielder, Willock has a keen eye for goal, and usually makes the most of it when given the opportunity. He has scored some very impressive goals for Arsenal at youth and first-team level, and he has a knack for being able to find the right amount of space in a dangerous area to pull off a shot.
Aaron: I would agree with Dylan that his finishing might surprise you. He’s going to chip in with some goals at Newcastle, mostly because of his movement into the box and his ability to link up with teammates. He’ll play a quick combination at the edge of the area, find the space for a shot, and put it home. Or he’ll find a space in between the center-back and the wingback, get a ball from Almiron or Saint-Maximin and shoot (or flash it across the face). I think you know the type of ball I’m talking about — the winger is somewhere around the corner of the box and they softly lay the ball into the space near the touchline, between the edge of the six and the outside of the box for someone to run onto. That someone is often Joe Willock.
CHN: We love player comparisons here at Coming Home Newcastle, so is there any player right now Willock is similar to? Is he a Kante type of player? Is he similar to Partey? Or perhaps Wjinaldum?
Dylan: As I mentioned above, there was a real buzz around Willock when he was emerging in the academy that he could be the heir to Ramsey once he left for Italy, and that comparison still stands to this day amongst Arsenal supporters. Both are midfielders who operate much better on the attack and on the break, and when it comes to shooting on goal, you can bet good money that the ball will end up on target.
Aaron: Yeah, Aaron Ramsey is about right. He’s not close to Ramsey’s level yet, but the movement from deeper areas that creates chaos coupled with the ability to pot a few goals himself is what does it.
CHN: Any parting words regarding Willock? Is there anything else we should know about him?
Dylan: I would just like Newcastle fans to know that they’re getting a very talented player who could make a real difference to their midfield. He offers something different to what the likes of Jonjoe Shelvey, Isaac Hayden and Jeff Hendrick give in the Newcastle system, and if Willock is allowed attacking creativity with the likes of Calum Wilson and Miguel Almiron in the XI, Bruce could have one heck of a player in his system.
Aaron: I think Willock will be well suited to the more direct, break quickly, hit on the counter style that Newcastle like to play. When I’ve watched Newcastle, I’ve noticed that Almiron, Saint-Maximin, whoever will beat the first man, look up, and see Callum Wilson as the only option in a black and white shirt, usually with two or three defenders around him. Joe Willock will consistently get himself into areas where he can be another option. That can do a couple of things: force the second defender coming to close down the winger to pause and decide whether to track Willock’s movement or to pressure the man on the ball, pull a defender to Willock and open up space for Wilson, or, if nobody goes to Willock, get him on the ball, moving forward, looking to do damage. It’s all about the balance of attackers versus defenders, and Willock’s strength will be shifting that balance in Newcastle’s favor.
We want to give a huge thank you to both Dylan and Aaron for taking the time out of their day to answer our questions. You can follow Dylan on Twitter at @dylanwalsh_ and on Medium here. Aaron can be found writing over at The Short Fuse and on Twitter at @AaronCLerner.