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Hale End is known by most fans of the Premier League as one of the best youth academies in the country, along with the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea. When we think of Hale End, ideas of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and even Ainsley Maitland Niles come to mind. But one man who has been consistently overlooked in recent years as he has grown from an academy talent to first team squad player is Joseph George Willock.
On April 15th 2018, an 18-year-old Joe Willock made his Premier League debut in a 2-1 defeat to Newcastle United. Despite the loss, we learnt a lot from the 68 minutes the youngster was on the pitch; he was raw, yet hungry… relentless. Full of energy. It was just a start, but the Arsenal fans got to see a glimmer of the player to come. At the beginning of the 2018/19 season, following the appointment of new manager Unai Emery, fans were excited to see Willock integrated with the first team- after playing just 417 minutes the season prior. Come the end of the campaign, his minutes stood at 526- with 6 goals scored in that time- a rather impressive goal to minute ratio for such a young player.
The 2019/20 season allowed Willock to more than triple his minutes in the first team. He made 44 appearances in all competitions, including 29 in the Premier League. Scoring five times and assisting once, the Hale Ender continued to show signs of a player with potential- but one who was raw and in desperate need of more minutes to build up his decision making and general play. After several potential loans fell through before the start of the 2020/21 season, it looked as if he was going to spend another campaign as a rotation player- getting minutes in cup games, and maybe a few displays off the bench in the Premier League.
This is largely how it played out up until Christmas on 2020- the Englishman was arguably Arsenal’s star player in the early stages of the Europa League, after he scored and assisted three times each over the course of just 344 minutes to ensure qualification into the knockout rounds. However, come January, having made just one start in the league, Arsenal agreed a deal with Newcastle United to acquire the services of Willock for the second segment of the season.
Life at Newcastle got off to a flying start for the 21-year-old, who scored just 16 minutes into his debut- helping to secure a 3-2 victory over Southampton. Willock then went on a 6-game streak of consecutive starts but failed to register a goal involvement. His next goal, in fact, came from his first game on the bench; in true Arsenal fashion, he came on with 11 minutes remaining to score a late equaliser against Tottenham Hotspur. This goal signalled the start of an excellent run-in to the end of the season for Joe Willock; he became the youngest ever player to score in seven consecutive Premier League appearances. He also showed a capability to score against top teams, with Liverpool, Leicester and Manchester City joining Tottenham as the top clubs unable to keep the youngster out. Willock’s final appearance for the Toon came on the closing day against Fulham, where he scored the seventh goal of his consecutive streak as a send-off to the Newcastle fans who welcomed him so openly.
Following such a successful loan, it seems obvious that Newcastle, as well as a plethora of other clubs, will be interested in acquiring Joe Willock on a permanent basis- and thus rumours of a potential switch back to the Magpies have been rife in the media over the past month or so. It became clear that Newcastle want the player permanently, after Steve Bruce suggested the club would “see over the summer if we [Newcastle] can test their [Arsenal’s] resolve.” However, Arsenal and Mikel Arteta have remained resolute in their belief that he will not be leaving Arsenal, the manager stated, “I am really happy things have gone so well for him because of the potential Joe has. It was great for him to go away and have a different experience. He has grabbed that opportunity in a really positive and remarkable way, and he will be back with us. We will have those conversations with him and plan the next few years with him.”
So, where does the future lie for Joe Willock? As far as I see it, Willock should be kept at Arsenal. There is no doubt in my mind. Whilst there is a valid argument that if we ‘cash in’ now, we could add a large chunk of money to our budget, I think the characteristics he has will make him more valuable for the team’s success in years to come than the reported £20,000,000 we could sell him for.
Joe Willock offers what most midfielders do not, and something unique to all the current midfielders at Arsenal. His movement from box to box, neat combination play and relentless third-man-runs are exactly what Arsenal have been missing since the departure of Aaron Ramsey. His ability to run beyond the striker and wingers and either collect the ball or draw out space for his teammates shows an excellent understanding and quality for a still relatively young player. If Mikel Arteta converts to the 4-3-3 formation, which has been heavily spoken about in his reign at the club, then Willock is an ideal player to play the advanced #8 mezzala role. When given chances at Arsenal, he always seemed to be played as a more advanced central creator which simply does not suit his play style, so to get the best out of him it would have to be in a midfield three where he has the freedom to express himself.
Another feature of Joe Willock’s play that I have been largely impressed with, especially during his time at Newcastle, is his dribbling. His ability to collect the ball and drive up the pitch with close control and tidy footwork is yet another attribute he could bring to Arsenal’s midfield- someone who instead of passing around low blocks looks to take a more direct and threatening route forward. This directness is exactly what we need at Arsenal- at times this season we have seemed to be toothless in attack and slow in build-up, so the addition of someone with the intentions of progressing the ball could be all too valuable.
For next season, I want to see Joe Willock heavily integrated with the first team. Keep him at the club as a rotation player, who will lead the team in cup games and provide a difference off the bench in the league- whilst also starting a handful of games. It is time that Mikel Arteta and Arsenal, with their limited budget, look within the club to answer their issues- and keeping Joe Willock could prove very helpful in developing this underperforming side.