One of the few things Arsenal has done right in recent years is to maximize their academy talent. Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe are talents that I think would have emerged in most recent iterations of the Gunners squad. The current squad are shorter in quality than they have been for a generation, which has likely allowed the aforementioned people to become not only first-team regulars but also two of the central pillars of the squad. .
Three years ago, I wrote a column claiming that it was time to stop spending a lot of money on players like Lucas Perez and Mohamed Elneny and start handing over team roles to players in the world. club academy. There are many benefits to using the club’s top academy talent for these roles, especially in the marketplace.
Either you develop them for a bigger role in the first team, or you develop them for cheap sale in the market. It’s a much more cost-effective way to build the squad and younger players tend to be more malleable and more willing to take on these roles. Alex Iwobi is a good example, an academy player that Arsenal developed, put to good use but decided he couldn’t take the team to the next level, so they conceded and Bukayo Saka progressed into hierarchical order.
The signing of Cedric Soares suggests that Arsenal have not fully learned their lesson in this area, but how they have used benchmark young players, like Saka, Smith Rowe and Martinelli (although Gabi is not a player of academy itself) and silver medalists like Nketiah, Maitland-Niles and Willock have been a rare positive management team in a tidal wave of bad decisions.
Which brings us to the future of Joe Willock. The use of Willock this season has been quite exemplary. Arsenal used him for the League Cup opening rounds and the Europa League group stage, where he managed to score three goals. With the group stages sidelined, Arsenal had fewer guaranteed starts to give Willock and the emergence of Emile Smith Rowe and the loan signing of Martin Odegaard limited his opportunities.
Newcastle always seemed like a good fit for Willock and so it turned out. Much of Willock’s weaknesses are technical and Steve Bruce’s side aren’t looking to dominate possession. They also badly needed goals from midfield with players like Jonjo Shelvey and Jeff Hendrick rarely disturbing the penalty area. In a counterattacking team, Willock thrived with a streak of important goals that kept the Magpies away from relegation.
The question is what Arsenal will do next. Newcastle have expressed a keen interest in keeping him permanently. Ordinarily I would shout “thank you very much, sell and reinvest” from the rooftops. However, the situation is slightly complicated by the amount of work Arteta and Edu already have to do in the central midfielder.
Dani Ceballos will return to Madrid this summer and Mohamed Elneny has only one year left to fulfill his contract. Even Granit Xhaka reached the two-year turning point with his deal, leaving the club in “sign or sell” territory. If Arsenal sold Willock he would need to replace him and Arteta and Edu in the bin this summer are already barely manageable.
There are also compelling football reasons for keeping Willock. Despite some of his technical limitations, he is comfortably Arsenal’s most menacing midfielder in front of goal. I think the Willock dilemma is really interesting for Arteta because Joe is so different from the other central midfielders he has.
It really depends on the vision for building the Arteta team. Sometimes the difference can cause it to malfunction, let’s say Thomas Partey gets injured and you select Willock for him – they’re two totally different players doing totally different things. The mechanics of your team change dramatically and this can lead to tactical disruption.
However, there is a case for the difference, especially on your replacement bench. Three of Willock’s five goals on loan at St. James came from the bench. In fact, his last Premier League goal for Arsenal at St. Mary’s last June also came after his introduction as a substitute. Willock is an interesting option in this regard.
We’ve seen that Arteta doesn’t like changing their system in-game. However, you can change your team’s intent without changing your system. Let’s say Arsenal chase a goal with a midfield duo consisting of Elneny and Partey. Replacing Willock with Elneny doesn’t change the lineup but it does provide the team with an additional goal threat.
However, Willock’s good form for Newcastle won’t necessarily translate into Arsenal. Newcastle’s style is much more suited to Willock’s qualities than Arsenal’s. Willock hasn’t really impressed in the Premier League for his parent club, there is a very strong argument that the club should welcome Newcastle’s interest. The loan system can develop a player for your own team (Ashley Cole, Alex Song, Emile Smith Rowe) but it can also create a market for a player.
Newcastle are probably ready to pay money for Willock now, when in January they weren’t. His goals have kept them in the Premier League and they are now no longer able to commit resources to signing him permanently. He has two years left on his contract with Arsenal and if the club are to keep him they must open talks with him to extend as soon as possible.
Personally, I don’t think Arsenal should agree to extend their deal at this point. They could take the path of least resistance, bring him back into the fold of the first team and if he doesn’t advocate more firmly for a bigger role in the first team by Christmas, the January market is here for them. . If the Gunners weren’t in Europe next season, there would be less of a safety net for Joe. If they have six group stage games in the winter, that gives Arteta another sample size just to judge his future at Arsenal.
If Arsenal commit to Willock without Europe (and that decision can be forced on them economically depending on who they can get out of the gate this summer), then they’ll have to make a plan for him that involves serious Premier minutes. League. Are they ready to make such a commitment? Is Joe Willock ready for this?
I have to say that I am leaning towards the idea of selling and reinvesting or making room on the team for the next row on the conveyor belt (Azeez, for example). The short-term midfielder situation is cause for concern but sooner or later Arsenal must stop acting in the short term and break this ruinous cycle, even if it takes a few months to be short in some positions.
Without European competition, the team would need to be downsized. With his technical shortcomings, it is difficult to see how Arsenal could fit Willock alongside players like Pepe and Martinelli who, like Willock, are not always technically clean but are efficient in the penalty area. That said, in recent weeks Arteta has shown a tendency to face Smith Rowe and Odegaard together as a “pair of 8s” in midfield.
Smith Rowe responded to this more positively than Odegaard in my opinion and I think Willock could potentially fit into this type of system alongside Smith Rowe. In fact, there is a potential partnership between ball-dominating Emile and Willock, with his ability to carry the ball and make successful ball runs in the area.
Arteta has to weigh what the team is currently against what he wants them to be when considering Willock’s future. Much will be determined by the size of the offers from Newcastle and other contenders. If an acceptable offer is not forthcoming, Arsenal can retain the player but they must have a plan specified for him. They cannot just keep it and hope vaguely – its development should be guided. It’s not just about selling or keeping, it’s about selling or engaging.
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