By RICH aka @whatsiname81
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.