One of the few things that Arsenal have done correctly in recent years is to maximise their academy talent. Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe are talents that, I think, would have emerged in most of the Gunners’ recent squad iterations. The current squad is shorter on quality than it has been for a generation which has probably made it slightly easier for the aforementioned to become, not just first team regulars, but two of the team’s central pillars.
Three years ago I wrote a column arguing that it was time to stop spending serious money on players like Lucas Perez and Mohamed Elneny and start entrusting squad roles to the club’s academy players. Using the club’s better academy talent for these roles has many benefits, especially in the market.
You either develop them for a more prominent role in the first team or else you develop them for sale at a good price on the market. It’s a far more cost-effective way of beefing out the squad and younger players tend to be more malleable and more willing to take these roles on. Alex Iwobi is a good example, an academy player Arsenal developed, got good use out of but decided he couldn’t take the team to the next level, so they cashed in and Bukayo Saka moved up the pecking order.
The signing of Cedric Soares suggests Arsenal have not entirely learned their lesson in this arena but how they have used the gold standard young players, like Saka, Smith Rowe and Martinelli (though Gabi is not an academy player per se) and the silver medalists like Nketiah, Maitland-Niles and Willock has been a rare squad management positive in a tidal wave of poor decisions.
Which brings us onto the future of Joe Willock. The use of Willock this season has been pretty much exemplary. Arsenal used him for the early rounds of the League Cup and the Europa League group stage, where he managed to score three goals. With the group stages out of the way, Arsenal had fewer guaranteed starts to give Willock and the emergence of Emile Smith Rowe and loan signing of Martin Odegaard limited his opportunities.
Newcastle always looked like a good fit for Willock and so it has proved. Willock’s weaknesses are largely technical and Steve Bruce’s side are not one that seeks to dominate possession. They also sorely needed goals from midfield with the likes of Jonjo Shelvey and Jeff Hendrick rarely troubling the penalty area. In a counterattacking team, Willock has thrived with a series of important goals that have steered the Magpies away from relegation.
The question is what Arsenal do next. Newcastle have expressed a firm interest in keeping him permanently. Ordinarily, I would be yelling “thanks 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 central midfield.
Dani Ceballos will set sail back to Madrid this summer and Mohamed Elneny only has one year left to run on his contract. Even Granit Xhaka has reached the two-year watershed on his deal, leaving the club in “sign or sell” territory. If Arsenal were to sell Willock, he would need replacing and Arteta and Edu’s in-tray this summer is already scarcely manageable.
There are also compelling footballing reasons to keep Willock. Despite some of his technical limitations, he is comfortably Arsenal’s most threatening midfield player in front of goal. I think the Willock dilemma is a really interesting one for Arteta because Joe is so different to the other central midfielders he has.
It really depends on what Arteta’s squad building vision is. Sometimes difference can cause dysfunction, let’s say Thomas Partey gets injured and you select Willock in his place- those are two totally different players that do totally different things. The mechanics of your team alter significantly and that can cause tactical disruption.
However, there is an argument for difference, particularly on your substitute’s bench. Three of Willock’s five goals on loan at St. James’ have come from the bench. In fact, his most recent 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 that respect.
We have seen that Arteta doesn’t like to change his system in-game. However, you can change the intent of your team without changing your system. Let’s say Arsenal are chasing a goal with a midfield duo of Elneny and Partey. Subbing Willock on for Elneny doesn’t change the formation but it does furnish the team with extra goal threat.
Willock’s good form for Newcastle might not necessarily translate to Arsenal, however. Newcastle’s style is far more suited to Willock’s qualities than Arsenal’s. Willock hasn’t truly impressed in the Premier League for his parent club, there is a very firm 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 presumably willing to pay money for Willock now, whereas in January they were not. His goals have kept them in the Premier League and they are now more able to commit resource to signing him permanently. He has two years left on his Arsenal deal and if the club wants to keep him, they need to open talks with him about extending sooner rather than later.
Personally, I don’t think Arsenal should countenance extending his deal at this stage. They could take the path of least resistance, bring him back into the first-team fold and if he doesn’t make a stronger case for a more prominent first-team role by Christmas, the January market is there for them. If the Gunners are not to be in Europe next season, there would be less of a safety net for Joe. If they have six group stage matches in the winter, that gives Arteta another fair sample size to judge his Arsenal future.
If Arsenal commit to Willock without Europe (and that decision may be forced upon them economically depending on who they can get out of the door this summer) then they will have to make a plan for him that involves serious Premier League minutes. Are they ready to make such a commitment? Is Joe Willock ready for that?
I have to say I am leaning towards the idea of selling and reinvesting or making room in the squad for the next line on the conveyor belt (Azeez, for example). The short-term midfield situation is a concern but, sooner or later, Arsenal need to stop acting in the short-term and break this ruinous cycle, even if it necessitates a few months of being short in certain positions.
Without European competition, the squad would need to be trimmed. With his technical shortcomings, it is difficult to see how Arsenal could integrate 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 an inclination to play Smith Rowe and Odegaard together as “a pair of 8s” in midfield.
Smith Rowe has responded to this more positively than Odegaard in my view and I think Willock could potentially slot into this kind of system alongside Smith Rowe. In fact, there is a potential partnership there between the ball dominant Emile and Willock, with his ability to carry the ball and make good off the ball runs in the area.
Arteta must weigh up what is team currently is versus what he wants it to be when considering Willock’s future. Much will be determined by the size of the offers from Newcastle and other suitors. If an acceptable offer is not forthcoming, Arsenal can retain the player but they must have a specified plan for him. They cannot just keep him and vaguely hope- his development would need to be guided. It isn’t just a case of sell or keep- but sell or commit.