Europa League Joe Willock – A Profile of Arsenal’s Progressive Midfield Talent

Arsenal 3 - Dundalk 0 match report: Willock, Nelson shine in victory - The Short Fuse

Ever since the era of UCL football ended and the era of UEL came in, the managers have used the Europa League for a chance to give minutes to the upcoming youngsters. In his final season, Le Professeur – Arsene Wenger, introduced the likes of soon-to-be England U21’s record goalscorer – Eddie Nketiah, and the equally talented Reiss Nelson, by promoting them to the first team from the academy set-up. While Unai Emery gave chances to wonderkids Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli who would go on to become some of the most exciting players to watch in the Arsenal shirt during Emery’s tenure. His successor, Mikel Arteta followed on the legacy and gave Folarin Balogun his first-team debut. There is 1 player who has stuck in all three managers UEL plans, the English central-midfielder, Joe Willock.


Joe Willock with Arsene Wenger

During the up-and-down reign of Unai Emery, Joe was given a chance in the group stages and started all 6 group games. Giving a return of 2 goals and 2 assists, he played no further part in the latter stage of the ‘Round of 32’ as Arsenal were eliminated just 1 game into the knockout stages.

But as Arteta came in to take the reigns, Willock did not seem to make the cut as he merely became a squad player; coming off the bench in the league and making a few starts in the cup competitions. But this season, may mark a new era for Joe Willock and may well be his breakout season. Joe told reporters in a press conference, ‘Every game I play I need to give the question and knock on the door with my performances. I don’t really like to speak, I like to show it on the pitch.’, showing the mindset he has, staying grounded and patient, waiting for more first-team chances.

Meanwhile, at the Emirates Stadium, Willock impressed with a nice goal and an intricate assist, against Irish champions – Dundalk in Matchday 2 of the Europa League. However, it was his performance over the entire game that left a statement of intent. In contrast to the opening match-day victory at Rapid Wien in Austria, a return to north London brought with it a sense of the regular dominance Arsenal have stamped onto this competition in the last 3 season of participation, as a vibrant, young and attacking Arsenal side slotted three past Dundalk to retain the 100% record from the previous game and also the top spot in Group B.

But since Project Restart in mid-June, there has been a recurring theme for Arsenal – moving with fluidity from the middle of the pitch into the final third and into the front-three. Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka formed a decent and reliable double pivot but neither were able to transition and drive the team forward, whether that was playing passes or with movement off-the-ball.

Thomas Partey’s signing will help in transitioning the ball, as his technical ability is great as his physicality. Arteta deployed the Ghanaian in the base of a 4-3-3 against Leicester, with Dani Ceballos to his right and Granit Xhaka on his left. But Joe Willock’s performance against Dundalk put Arsenal midfield dimensions under a new lens.

Against Dundalk, Arsenal’s official line up was a 3-4-3, with Willock part of a double-pivot along with Mohamed Elneny in midfield. As the course of the game altered, Ainsley Maitland-Niles pushed more central, almost playing as a third midfielder at times, instead of his LWB position displayed on paper, giving his fellow Willock better spaces to exploit and run in behind.

Often under Arteta, Joe has been tasked with breaking into the spaces between the right-winger and striker. Coming into these areas from deep, means he explodes into a real threat once he gets ahold of the ball. His hold-up play is unrivalled in the midfield, with real strength and grit to hold of opposition, find a pass forward and even his defensive instincts.

Regarding his decision-making, the choices he makes, need to become more consistent. Whether he runs himself or picks a pass or even goes for goal, his end product has a lot of room for improvement. But, what he offers is unlike any midfielder currently starting under Arteta, the hold-up play, flair, skill, pace and passing range is unique and adds another dimension to Arsenal as a whole.

Whether he gets the chances to break-out fully under Arteta remains to be seen, but he more than has the ability to make a name for himself this season and we hope to see him become more than a squad player.

An article by Ibrahim from @HaleEndArsenal

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