How does Joe Willock fit back into the Arsenal lineup?
January 31, 2020. This crucial date was the pivot towards the rise of Joe Willock’s career. Before being let out on loan, the 21-year-old was struggling to get minutes at Arsenal and was missing clinical chances, namely a one on one in the Europa League final, arguably the most important game for Arsenal since Barcelona in 2006.
However, a refresh in Newcastle-upon-Tyne proved to be a chance for Joe to not only experience proper game time at a Premier League club, but also majorly impress other clubs and his parent club. Seven goals in seven consecutive games won Joe the May Player of the Month award beating Sadio Mane and our very own Nicolas Pepe.
However, Joe returns to Arsenal with a very complicated situation. Having been one of the standout players, there isn’t a clear space in the starting XI where Willock could fit in. Also, with the additional rumours of Arsenal pursuing transfers for Manuel Locatelli, Houssem Aouar & James Maddison, it is not determined whether this will replace Joe Willock.
Mikel Arteta has been keeping his cards very close to his chest when he was approached by the press about this very situation last week after Arsenal’s preseason defeat against Hibernian. “Joe is part of our plans, he’s our player and in the time that he is here we will try to make the most out of him.”
Now the key question is, if Arsenal were to keep hold of Joe Willock, how would he fit in?
Newcastle play an attacking 5-3-2, a formation that was seen used by many managers in the Euros this year because of its ability to be offensive and then immediately defensive with the midfielders dropping back, and the often fast wing-backs tracking back consistently to retain possession. The role that Joe played was either in the left or right CAM/CM spot feeding into the two attackers, in this instance Joelinton & Allan Saint-Maximin.
Although Arsenal seems to struggle when playing 5-3-2 the spot that Joe Willock had been playing for the Magpies is similar or can be easy to change into the spot in the 4-2-3-1 or the 433 with one CAM and two CDMS. Willock in the CAM spot could be paired with other academy graduates Emile Smith-Rowe who looks a key part of Arteta’s plans for the season ahead as well as Bukayo Saka who is returning from a wonderful Euros tournament which was unfortunate to end the way it had done.
As mentioned before though, the CAM spot has been an area that Arsenal has been searching for in the transfer market hinting that Joe might not be used there, and I highly doubt that he will be put in with Thomas Partey in the defensive midfield because the most defensive he can play is box-to-box. As you can see in the picture below, I have created the lineup that can fit Joe in it with none of the rumours/new signings that haven’t been confirmed yet and none of the departures such as Xhaka/Bellerin who haven’t left the club formally yet.
A key aspect of Joe’s playstyle is his positioning. Positioning as a midfielder is vital, as they have to be in the right places both when defending and attacking. An example I’ll look at is the 21-year-old’s equaliser against title contenders Liverpool in the final moments of the match. In the two screenshots below, I have captured where Joe was while the ball was in motion, and afterwards when he latches on to the ball. This is the perfect example because where Joe is standing when the ball is in the air is ideal for an attacking midfielder but is still prepared to run back in case Liverpool’s fast wingers in Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane can create a counter-attack. It’s then all about the finish which was perfect into the bottom corner beating Allison.
So to conclude, Joe is worthy of a spot but it’s how he will return into the starting XI that may be the problem. Recent news surfacing around social media suggests that Newcastle are back in for Willock for another loan, which is very likely to happen and is not the worst of news but not the best. A box-to-box CM is ideal right now but there are plenty of other options on the market for now. It’s just how Arsenal will deal with him is the main issue.