OPINION: Joe Willock - A Sacrifice I Am Willing to Make
It's happening... finally.
After a summer of many strikingly transparent statements of intent from Newcastle manager Steve Bruce, confirmation came last night that 21 year old England midfielder Joe Willock looks set to sign for Newcastle on a permanent deal, for a fee around the £20-25m mark dependent on add-ons. It is thought, specifically by Chris Wheatley of football.london that Arsenal do have a sell-on clause in the agreement.
For Newcastle, they've got what they wanted at a reasonable price. Willock was their out and out number 1 target, and their fans are jubilant. And who could blame them? Willock took like a curlew to the Tyne last season, (one for all you North East wildlife lovers) scoring 8 goals in the Premier League after joining the Magpies on loan in January, including 7 in the last 9 match days; 3 of them winning goals.
Newcastle get a homegrown, physically dominant goalscoring midfielder who is perfect for their counter-attacking low touch system, with room to grow at nearly 22. Perfect.
But deciding if it's a good deal for Arsenal is a bit more of a tricky one.
Willock - The Player
There are often question marks over Willock's suitability for this Arsenal team, with good reason.
While there remain many stylistic questions over Arteta's Arsenal, it is clear that Mikel wants his team to aim to dominate possession. Arsenal passed the ball 529.63 times per 90 in 20/21, up from 490.76 per 90 in 19/20, and were the 7th most ball dominant team in the league this year, possession wise. We also see this trend in recruitment, with the signings of Ben White and Sambi Lokonga this summer, as well as the likes of Thomas Partey the previous year; major outlays on players whose major attributes centre on comfortability with the ball at their feet.
Joe Willock does not really fit this mould. It's not to say that Willock is not "technically secure" or "can't pass the ball" as that would be reductive, but it's just simply not where he excels. His passing stats from 20/21 in terms of attempts and ball progression (not carries) are not that great, but that could be down to a stylistic choice under Bruce.
Stats courtesy of Scott Willis (@oh_that_crab) on Twitter.
More importantly from Arsenal's perspective, the pass completion levels are simply not where we need them to be.
For a team that is trying to sit higher up the pitch (as we have seen in pre-season), dominate the ball and then do whatever Mikel is trying to do in the final third (I don't know either), having someone whose strength is not in ball retention and permeation of mid to low blocks is just not what we need right now. And with 75+ Arsenal appearances to his name, we sort of know what he is by now.
In plainer terms, Willock is a player who is most devastating with the grass in front of him. He is physical and good in the air, able to arrive late in the box and score all kinds of goals with space. That's space on the counter though, and space he simply won't be afforded at Arsenal - but something that has been and will be afforded to him at Newcastle.
There is, of course, the argument that you should try and keep as many different types of players in your squad as possible. Arsenal desperately need goals from midfield, so isn't Joe Willock exactly what we need? He's also got good defensive instincts.
Valid points. But when Arsenal's plan A is stuttering, it seems prudent to try and focus on that first, and perhaps people like Willock have to be collateral for now. It will be painful in the short term, and we may be crying out for someone like Joe Willock to come on and change a game state in certain situations this campaign, especially with no Europe.
For me though, this season must be about consolidating a clear vision for how the team plays. At the moment, Willock's style just doesn't fit that.
Willock - The Man
With every academy graduate's future, there is always an extra degree of buy in from a fan perspective.
"One of our own" always prompts a feeling of pride, and looking at the fortunes of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe over the past season or two has shone a light on the great work being done at Hale End. What happens though, I think, is there is then a certain degree of dialling up on the (already heightened) expectations for even more success stories for those around and after in the academy production line, and players from similar generations are compared and critiqued - sometimes unfairly and unnecessarily.
Everyone's journey is different.
It begs the question to me - what do we want or expect from our academy? 50 Bukayo Sakas every year? The phrase "There's only one Bukayo Saka" is true both allegorically and literally. There is only one, and he is a generational talent - not everyone can or will be like him. So what of the rest of them? The 99%?
Willock has been at the club since 2004, coming through the ranks along with brothers Chris and Matty, who have both since departed. Joe seems bright, grounded, and hard working - he seems loved everywhere he goes. Getting £25m for Joe is simply a really, really good indictment of the academy and its long term work, and should be viewed as a huge success for Arsenal, in the vain of Alex Iwobi's £35m move to Everton, except in an even more difficult market. We have bred a player capable of accruing that amount of capital for Arsenal and Arsenal's future.
Not every player will be Jack Wilshere or Bukayo Saka. We must celebrate and acknowledge that we are preparing young men and women for their professional careers, and earning a move to an historic Premier League club, likely to be starting every game as the jewel in their crown, is a wonderful success story to be celebrated. For the academy, in real terms, that fee pays for salaries for coaches, teachers, cleaning, equipment, research, groundsmen etc. etc for years to come, and we must keep it in context.
The academy has also changed a young man and his family's life forever - that is success.
Willock - The Deal
Willock's stock is at an all time high. According to Orbinho, Joe Willock scored eight goals from just 13 shots on target last season. He scored with 35% of his total shots, and his xG was 4.5. That is an extraordinary return. Unless Willock is the next Lionel Messi, it is unlikely he will outperform his xG to such a degree next season. Now is the prime time to sell.
Tim Stillman made an excellent point on Twitter yesterday.
This is painfully true, and we have seen it so, so many times in the past.
Arsenal would bite your hand off for £20m for Ainsley Maitland-Niles this summer. Waiting around for the perfect time to sell your players will simply not work, and will only put you in a weaker position. I'd love to have another season of Willock to see if his value can increase more - but it's more likely Willock had a hot streak than he is actually Lionel Messi... right?
Part of this is controlling the narrative around players. Fixing the Özil situation sooner or accepting we would lose Alexis sooner might have brought in in excess of £100m. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but we need to learn from our mistakes and sometimes you have to do the difficult (and often unpopular) thing to keep your accounts healthy and stop yourself falling behind. If we aren't careful, kicking the Joe Willock shaped can down the road could create another stand off between the club and a talented player, and we could watch Willock leave, frustrated, with a point to prove at just 23.
There is no "right time" to sell, per se. But talent is everywhere, and money is not. When it's on the table, let's be sensible.
I have very few qualms with the deal itself. Perhaps £20-25m is perhaps a little on the low side for a player with his level of experience, age and with the homegrown bonus, but with two years left on his deal, Willock was unlikely to sign a new one without assurances over play time, and Newcastle appeared to be the only club in for him. It's a difficult market with not a lot of money floating around unless you're at the higher end of the Premier League. The sell on is good business as well.
I love Willock as a player and as a person, and this deal might cause some real frustration next season if he outperforms his xG again so well. However, I urge Arsenal fans: We must remember that at the time, whatever happens, it looked on balance to be the right thing to do.
As the saying goes... you have to kill your darlings...
...and it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make.