Joe Willock has been one of the success stories of the second half of the season. Arsenal opted to loan him and Ainsley Maitland-Niles out to teams in the relegation battle. It has been the one sent to Newcastle United that has led his team to safety and he has been the standout player for them during their recent upturn in form.
There will be a lot of speculation about his future and this will only increase in the coming weeks, due to his return of seven goals in the black and white. Arsenal have only had two goals scored by central midfielders this season and they may be willing to bring their improved player back into their squad. However, the Telegraph report that Newcastle are confident that Willock wants to make his move to the North East permanent. The only sticking point will be price.
It is a difficult one for Arsenal, as they are in a period of transition under Mikel Arteta and they should be trying to find a role for a goal-scoring midfielder like Willock. There is a group of young players coming through in North London, led by Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka. Willock would fit very nicely into that group, but if they miss out on European football completely, he is one of the few saleable assets with considerable value. They will need to bring money in to fund their own recruitment.
There is also likely to be distrust between Willock and Arteta. This has been a very poor season for Arsenal, but he still hasn’t been trusted to play regularly for the Gunners. He played just 235 minutes in the Premier League before moving on loan to the North East. Despite contributing three goals and three assists in the Europa League, he wasn’t given a chance to carry that form into the league. It might be that Willock doesn’t see a way into the first team under Arteta and that could mean he tries to force a move this summer.
During his loan spell, Willock has played 890 minutes in the Premier League for Newcastle, scoring seven goals. This includes a goal in each of his last six matches. Throughout this run, he has scored equalisers against Tottenham and Liverpool and winners against West Ham United and Sheffield United. He has emerged as a ‘clutch’ player, scoring goals that earn his team points in pressured situations.
Although it isn’t sustainable to score every week, Willock’s underlying numbers are very impressive. He has recorded 4.58 expected goals (xG) during his loan spell, averaging 0.46 xG per ninety minutes. The on-loan midfielder ranks third in both metrics for Newcastle. It is incredible that he has the third highest xG, despite playing less than 1000 minutes for them this season.
Willock is only averaging 1.61 shots per ninety minutes, which suggests that he is getting high quality chances. His movement is key to the threat that he carries and Newcastle have found a role for him that gets the best from him. The system and supporting cast have helped get the best from the midfielder. It is unlikely that Arsenal would give him such a prominent role in their attack, which means the output may not be there if he returns to the Emirates Stadium.
The 21-year-old is averaging 1.7 dribbles per game, which is a sharp increase to his average of 0.6 at Arsenal. Willock has clearly gained confidence throughout his loan spell in the North East. He is now looking to pick the ball up deep and make things happen, showing how he is enjoying the role for Newcastle.
Off the ball, he is an aggressive midfielder, as shown by his average of 1.8 tackles and 1.2 interceptions per game. This is why he has been fielded as a box-to-box midfielder, as he can be effective in both halves of the pitch.
The one area where he can improve is his creativity. Willock averages 0.8 key passes per ninety minutes. In recent matches, he has carried the ball into the final third often, but his final pass has let him down on a few occasions. It is also noteworthy that he has failed to register an assist during his loan spell. His expected assists (xA) has been 0.67, which shows that his creative numbers haven’t been great.
Despite this, there is no doubting that Willock is one of the most exciting English midfielders in the Premier League at the moment. It is remarkable for a midfielder to score in six successive matches, especially with the caveats that he has been a sub in the first three and he is playing for a team in the bottom half of the table. He has also managed to score against Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City.
If Arteta can find a role for him in the starting eleven, Arsenal should keep Willock. However, if he is going to be used as a squad player, they should take advantage of his stock being high and sell him on for a substantial fee. It remains to be seen whether Newcastle have the money required, but if they do, it could be the biggest coup of the Mike Ashley era.