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Joe Willock Deserves More Chances

By RICH aka @whatsiname81

Via Wikimedia

Joe, Joe, Joe. Ok, it doesn’t have the same ring to it as you know who, but like Nketiah, Joe Willock is a player with the potential to have a very fine career, hopefully with Arsenal. For Joe, the path is, at present, a little clearer than with Eddie. The time very much appears to be now to step up his involvement significantly and see how he fares. Let us look at why that is the case and what he can offer.

Willock has been with the club from a young age and is the youngest of three footballing brothers, all of whom spent time with the club in their youth careers. He has played football for many years with many of our other youth prospects, including some of those on the recent American tour.

The first Willock I watched closely was the middle brother, Chris. He quickly became a favorite of mine in the youth ranks thanks to his wonderful dribbling and close control. Disappointingly, he left for Benfica at 18. The oldest brother, Matthew, had left Arsenal years before, meaning Joe was the last Willock standing with us.

Unlike with Chris, I did not immediately recognize vast potential in Joe. He looked talented, sure, but didn’t especially stand out to me. This could well be because of the habit I have of making quick early judgments of players and being slow to change them. Judgments which themselves are influenced by what I have seen or heard through the internet grapevine, and by whether a youngster is involved with age group squads for their country. Joe, I recall, scored a good goal for England u16’s in what would have been one of the last year of them competing in the home nations tournament at that age group.

Still, I did not view him as I did the likes of Nelson, Saka or Trae Coyle, of whom I had heard big things before getting to see them play. There was even some issue about whether he would sign a scholarship at 16 and, also, around this time I believe he was due to travel with youth squad for a tournament abroad but never went because of some unknown issue.

I’ll skip over his early days with u18’s as I do not remember too much about them. His first game with u23’s was, I believe, his brother Chris’s final game with club. It was during his time with the u23’s that it became increasingly obvious there is a real player there, one who had a genuine chance to make it with our first team. A player who can score, can dribble past opponents, can pass, and can get stuck in, making tackles and carrying out other defensive work.

Demonstration of faith by Wenger

Unsurprisingly, the club recognized before I did what potential the player had. Willock was given his competitive senior debut in the 2017-18 season, Wenger’s final year, played a total of 11 games, including starting an away premier league fixture vs Newcastle. In this era of so much talk of the importance of home grown youth, and with a large number of highly rated prospects at the top clubs, such opportunities and demonstrations of faith are nonetheless rare. Alas, my memory limitations mean I can’t remember too much from those first 11 games.

Thankfully, I remember last year much better. It seemed to me that, generally speaking, it was a case of ‘give him an opportunity, he will take it’. In all competitions for us, senior and youth, he scored 12 goals in 20 games, while for the England u20 side there were 4 goals in 7 appearances; a total of 16 goals in 27 appearances. Excellent stuff for any midfielder.

Most encouraging, however, was that 6 of those goals came in the 8 games against senior opposition; 2 in the Fa Cup, 1 in the Europa League, and 3 in the EFL trophy (playing for our u23 team against senior opposition from the third and fourth tier of English league system). 6 goals in a total of 526 minutess. One every 88 minutes.

For the u23 side in Premier League-2 it was 6 goals in 12 appearances. At that level, in a game I saw towards the end of the season, he looked a cut above that level of football. Admittedly, it was as part of a stunning team performance, with a strong cast of youngsters around him, but nevertheless it was he who looked most accomplished.

I can’t avoid the cliche….he looked too good for his opponents in that game. There were his trademark dribbles, holding off challenges, good passes with at least one of the stunning variety to slice open a defence, and a ball fired into the net from just inside the box for good measure, the culmination of a 12 minute first half spell, very likely the high point of the u23 side’s season, in which the team scored three fine goals in an eventual 5-0 win against Derby. The whole teamwere gloriously on song for much of that first half but it was surely Joe who shone brightest. If memory serves, he was subbed off at half time. Job done.

My impression was that the player got stronger as the season progressed, which is precisely what you want from any youngster you have high hopes for progress.

Can Joe fit in the Arsenal midfield?

Now, where could he fit in with us? I must admit to be growing less sure each season what a good midfield looks like. A big admission, but while I like all of Xhaka, Torreira and Guendouzi a lot, yet I don’t think any pairing is just right, nor that the three equal the sum of their parts when playing together, let alone exceed them. But this is what you really hope from that most vital part of your team. I feel little more certainty when considering how Willock and the newly signed Ceballos fit in.

I find it a little easier to think of what’s needed in a midfield when the team’s identity is crystal clear, especially if it is a defensive identity. Leicester won a title with Danny Drinkwater playing well and doing a very effective job for them. Admittedly, it helped having the freakishly good Kante alongside him, but still.

At the other end, with teams who play total football or something close, and who tend to be a small number of teams who are the biggest and richest in their domestic league, their midfielders are superb technicians. But then these teams also have technical, skilful players all over the pitch. Domestically, Man City have upended my expectations by making it work with only one central midfielder with strong defensive capacities, and even he is no powerhouse, nor exceptionally quick.

So I really don’t know. In the Europa league final, for instance, we had an alarming vulnerability to driving runs from midfield; get past one of ours and they generally can’t recover. With only two in there, neither of whom are fast, that’s a problem. On the other hand, none of the two can drive forward with the ball effectively. That was part of the reason why, when deep in our half defending, even if we did regain possession, it looked a formidably hard task to get the ball forward quickly or at all.

So, again, where does Joe Willock fit in? I don’t know. However, he surely has qualities the team could benefit from. He does have the ability to beat players with skill and for them to stay beat; i.e. if he gets past someone, he can drive onwards. Also, if last year is a guide, he has made serious improvements on his ability to arrive into the box at the right time, and on his finishing when he does so. Defensively, there have also been plenty of encouraging signs. He’s up for the battle and seems to have an appetite and aptitude for doing defensive work. I haven’t seen enough to know exactly how good he is tactically or in terms of judgment and discipline, but my rough impression is that he has plenty to offer on that side of the game also.

Hoping for 20 first team games

For the next season I would hope for him to be involved in a minimum of twenty first team games, hopefully closer to 30, with about half of them as a starter. As a guide look at the appearance figures for Iwobi and Maitland-Niles at similar ages and stages of progression. Iwobi’s first year with us, starting as a recently turned 19 year old, saw him make 21 total appearances; Ainsley appeared 28 times as a 20 year old in 2017-18 and 30 the following season.

The key thing is that his performances and improvements last year are rewarded and he gets more opportunities this year than last. We must see if he can continue to improve. Generally, the club must reward our best young players when they do well with their opportunities and give them further chances. This is more important for us than it is for City, United, Chelsea or Liverpool at present. Those clubs are currently either stronger, richer, or both. Our self-sustaining model needs at least a few big hits from the academy. The talent is, it seems pretty clear, there, so we must push to…make it happen.

During the writing of this, Real Madrid faced Atletico and were duly thumped 7-3, another indication that the player crucial as any to their incredible and unprecedented recent champions league successes could be the Brazilian midfielder Casemiro. Quite simply before he came into the team they were operating as less than the sum of their parts. I remember them struggling to fit all their incredible attacking talents – Bale, Ronaldo, Benzema, James Rodriguez and Isco – into a coherent team. The answer was Casemiro or more precisely Casemiro, Modric and Kroos. Sacrifice an attacking player to make the midfield stronger and in turn make the team and the attack better.

I say that only to underline how critical it is to have a balanced midfield, how defensive stability can also allow a team to get the most out of their attack. It has been a fairly common experience for me in recent years to feel, that our attack is undermined by our defense (midfield included), or, in contradiction of my earliest football views, that 3 or 4 quality attacking players does not guarantee a team will be dangerous going forward.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how Willock fits into the balanced midfield am advocating. However I am very sure he has earned the chance to continue his impressive development.

How much will fans sacrifice

Finally, as a fan what are you willing to sacrifice in order to give these young players a true chance, or the best chance, to make it with us? I believe there is a Wenger quote about young players costing points (initially). No doubt he put it a lot better than that, but the point is crucial, if more difficult to understand than it appears. No manager is presented with certainties that playing this or that youngster reduces your chance of victory, etc, by x per cent in a particular game, and yet there’s truth to it. Inexperience can be costly. In nearly all cases at big clubs, the more experienced option is at least a slightly safer bet. The appetite for victory among fans is gigantic now. The criticism after disappointments immense. Somethings gotta give, so to speak.

As an Arsenal fan, you are, most likely, a huge advocate of playing youth but you are also, most likely, keen to win every single match and extremely keen to not lose, the big matches. The question is whether you can respect the decision to play and push young players, even if the result isn’t great. Can you do that at all? For me, it’s a challenge.

And yet, push we must. Bringing through our own is an important part of the model. I cannot imagine us achieving huge success under the current model without a number of youth products becoming big players for us. If we want an absolutely incredible player, our best chance is to produce our own, given that it is very hard in the transfer market for us to secure the very best players in the world once established. The happiness, for me at least, is very considerable when young players come into the first team and do well.

So bring on Joe Willock. Give him his chance.


  1. I love Rich as a writer for his honesty and frankness. He is a man who watches a lot of football, including the Arsenal youths and despite his intimate knowledge, unlike billy-blagger, he is not afraid to say “I am not sure” and explain why. Today’s article he gives a detailed intimate assessment of Joe Willock. Hope readers truly appreciate it.

  2. finsburypJuly 31, 2019 at 7:34 pm

    I’d like to see Willock and new No.8 both play as 8’s this season.

    The slowing Miki is also perhaps best suited to that role now?

    There are options in that area.
    same as last season. Fingers crossed.

    • Fins: It all depends on what system the coach decides to play. It is safe to assume he wants to play both Laca and Auba so ideally it should be 4-4-2 or a diamond in midfield. In both systems he will have Mikhitaryan and Guendouzi rotating as an 8. There is no room for Willock except as a sub. This, I think, is what makes Rich so uncertain about how Willock will fit in. Emery got cold feet last season playing 4-2-3-1. I therefore doubt he has the guts or the players to set up in a 4-1-4-1 like Pep. In my opinion he will eventually resort to last year’s 5-3-2 set up. Anyone willing to bet otherwise?

      • Is it safe to assume anything with Emery?

        What is the default mode of this chameleon?

        To try and hide.

        • A Blusterer and a Blagger.

          I can see that’s Guendouzi has some potential but it’s straightforward and simple to appreciate for any football fan why Willock & AMN should’ve got more minutes last season in CM ahead of the rookie from League 2. Even if he has a higher ceiling.

          Another catastrophic horrific football call that also helped to cost that one point.

          Studiously ignored and avoided by yer Billy Big Blagger.

        • Lololol..

          Default mode is to pretend a molehill is a mountain, and act like it’s all part of the plan when things go not to plan.Or pass blame.

          The only exception being, when things are going well, he feels compelled to slow it down and show his tactical genius, adding more pressure onto the team.

          It’s football that is not just boring, but directionless. No point guessing how players will fit in under him. He’l be sure to mess it up one way or another.

  3. I thought Willock should have played more games last season, especially when Ramsey went down injured. He could provide some similar forward thrust from midfield. Instead Emery went with Guendouzi. Also a player I like, but a very different kind of player than Joe Joe Joe, and Ramsey.

    Which, brings us to the system and Emery. As you point out, it is very difficult to know how players fit in if there is no set identity, Imagine how much tougher it must be for players. For a young player to still shine in such a situation speaks to his talent.

    I wouldn’t be too harsh on myself if I were you. It often goes this way when judging young players. Even the best of the best make mistakes. Central midfield is especially hard to tell because the qualities needed are often more cerebral and less eye catching. For what it’s worth, Joe Willock seems to handle the pressure well. I hope Freddie will have a real impact this season because otherwise, much as I’d like to see it, I don’t think Emery will give WIllock enough game time. As long as that isn’t completely stalled, a year being understudy to Ceballos may not be the worst thing.

  4. Meanwhile the new regime has obviously decided that, similar to Manchester United’s Ed Woodward, they will use transfers and big signings as a means of manipulating fans while the football gets from bad to worse. In the last week or so they staged the signing of Saliba and Ceballos to coincide with the Q&A but even more egregious was having Ornstein announce the signing of Pepe 36 hours before the Emirates Cup and now 4-5 days later it hasn’t been finalized. We can easily predict, as George did, that like United, Emery will be sacked if we don’t get Champions League and at this rate with all the big signings and no defined way of playing we could, god forbid, finish 7th or 8th.

    • Exactly Shotts.

      Bang on the: Money. £, € & $.

    • I think we should be fair to ourselves:

      Most of us here have spent the last five years ripping the piss out of Utd, Woodward, and all out Utd supporting friends not because they have the best record after City, Chelsea and Shambles FC (sush it’s the Arsenal! If you won’t tell the Billy Big Bollocks Blaggers, then neither will I!):

      But because they spent £75M on a striker who isn’t bad, but was dropped by his national coach for Origi. In the 2014 WC. Because he was never worth that much Wonga. Not unless you are an expert in Football Relations, and operating Tanning Salons in Glasgow. The kind of person a Billy Big Blagger recently described to their listeners as a “Football man” I kid ye not.

      Therefore, it’s only good and honest and robust/healthy form to do likewise with such cunning linguists who are now sucking hard on the body of AFC.

      • While I have been jealous of United’s pending power I ROFLMAO when they signed Pogba and Sanchez because I couldn’t see how they would improve them but Billy Big Blogger and their lemmings lapped it up. I would have loved Martial when we need some speed up top beside Giroud but they blasted us and everybody else out of the water. Mikhitaryan looked like a good signing but he failed there and he is not exactly ripping up trees at Arsenal. My point is this entire reliance on big signings is not all it is cracked up to be but Raul and Co, unlike Wenger, are now making it a centerpiece of their PR.

        • Not just PR shotta. That is a handy side benefit. But dealing with agents comes across as Raul’s true passion. Must be very fulfilling for him.

          • There’s an Omertà amongst the Blagging liars to hide from their audience the history of the Neymar transfer and he resulting court case.

            Or the destruction of the standing and status of FC Barcelona (As soon as Messi hangs up his boots they’ll be lucky to have the third best squad in Spain).

            “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter.”

            Credit where it is due: the late great Harold Pinter helpfully explained to everyone how they can identify a bona fide frothing sociopath.

    • Happy about a fast forward arriving to improve the squad, Shotts you know how much I enjoy such players!

      You were spot on the PR game.

      Overdrive now in the hypo-sphere. Servers are whirring after having had time to warm up. As Shard noted the transfers are RS’s game.

      The dawn chorus to anoint the new Dein?

      I don’t know but I think Dein was about when a bunch of youth players broke through?


      Not like Cazorla of course, more like a Mahrez in my expert opinion heh? Wouldn’t be fair to compare him to the maestro at the same age unless people are enjoying the hype but the number’s a good omen, I hope.

      Does he take less nerve wracking pens then Aubamayang? If so that might be a bonus haha!

  5. A very nice piece Rich.

  6. What I have seen of Joe Willock, which has only been highlights, have impressed me a lot. He seems to be ended up a lot in the box, a la Ramsey.

    Although you might complain that I keep on repeating the same nonsense, I simply cannot see what Guendouzi does, so why he is given preference over Willock, or indeed AMN, who is more of a central midfielder than a full back, is a mystery to me?

    Yes, he runs a around a lot, which seems to be what UE wants more than skill or achievements, but what does he achieve in respect of the team as a whole.

    I daresay, UE will still use him at every opportunity at the expense of other junior players, although, after all, Guendouzi is as junior and as senior as Willock, Nelson etc.

    Will UE change his strategy? I doubt it.

    • To be honest, I too have been wondering what has Guendouzi done to earn so much playing time. Unlike Torreira, he is not a true DM and as part of a 2-man double pivot he is average; a decent passer and a weak dribbler. I can hardly recall him bursting from deep with the ball at his feet. At the same time Willock has hardly had chances to play this role. Hopefully Ceballos will get his minutes but even then being on loan it is a short term fix.

      • I suspect that, same as last season, most Arsenal fans in spite of the bollocks from Billy The Big Bamboozling Blagger, same as last season people will be wondering why a player with potential will be starting ahead of established footballers (The new 8 as opposed to the old 8).

        Bearing in mind the price of just one point in the league.

        Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the 19 year old will suddenly mimic a 27 year old D.Baggio or something alien like that. You never know. In the meantime the same people that told their gullible listeners that Ozil and Rambo couldn’t play together is empire the evidence of three or six trophies in four years (i kid ye not!) are now saying that the chap who tells Emery who he can or cannot play is a “Football Man”.

        That’s already a new low for these proven parasites and the disrespect they average football lover.
        and the season hasn’t even started!

        • Why are we the only people who find/found the elevation of young Guendouzi to be our 1st choice #7 or #8 beyond strange while Ramsey was planted on the bench? Why are we only ones concerned that signing Ceballos on loan will effectively kill the progress of Joe Willock?

          Billy Big Blogger and the Prattling Podcasters see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil.

    • I agree I expect UE to continue with lots of minutes for MG.

      He might in the future develop into a Khedeira type CM? a similar style, I hope.

      But i don’t see any instinct there that will see him become a DM, not yet.

  7. inspite > empire


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