“Keep doing what he’s doing consistently and his chance will arrive”, was the response of Mikel Arteta when asked about Joe Willock’s chances of playing for Arsenal in a Premier League game. Joe Willock has impressed with his performances for Arsenal in the Europa League. Between the UEFA Europa League and the Carabao Cup, he has played 407 minutes and has 4 starts out of 5 games for Arsenal. His performance in these games, coupled with Arsenal’s inconsistent results, many sections of fan and media are calling for him to be given a chance in the Premier League games.
A predominantly a right-footed player, Joe Willock is a player who covers a lot of ground and very quickly too. He is a strong runner with the ball and looks ready physically to play at a top-level.
One of his strengths is his ability to find spaces in the opposition’s penalty area. And to complement this observation statistically, he has the most number (18) of touches in the penalty areas amongst the Arsenal players.
Eager to enter the penalty area and get closer to the goal, Joe often plays a 1-2 with a team-mate in a central position. Here we can see that Joe plays a lateral pass to Granit Xhaka. He waits for the defenders to move towards Xhaka before making the run behind. While Xhaka spots his run and lobs the ball over the defender towards Joe.
Joe Willock typically has started most of his game in a number 10 position behind the striker. This is no doubt his best position in a 4-2-3-1 formation, where he supports the striker in offensive moments, and drops in the midfield to support the team defending in numbers. He can also play in a central role as a box-to-box midfielder like he did against Dundalk FC. But his natural tendency is to drift to the right and operate from the inside-right channel. This is where he is most dangerous and combines well with the players around him. The position heat map above definitely tells you a story here!
A world-class player who operates best from an inside-right channel is Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne. Joe has a lot to improve even before being compared to Kevin De Bruyne, but his off-the-ball movement, interplay with the team-mates, and ability to play dangerous crosses from these positions make him a brilliant prospect for any club. In the above picture, after exchanging passes with Willian, Joe is in a perfect position to pick a cross and get Arsenal back into the game. More often, his crosses are always in the zone that is difficult to defend for the opposition. Also, Joe has a higher success rate on crosses from the right flank than the left.
If there is something the ex-Real Madrid player Mezut Ozil doesn’t have that Joe Willock has in a number 10 position is the intelligence to press opponents in their own half. Joe is always scanning around to press unmarked opponents. His hardworking attitude while pressing high is a big advantage.
He is also a player who is aware in the midfield while tracking the opponent’s late runs. We can see how Joe is anticipating a pass to the opponent close to him, even when the pass is played between two different opposition players. This kind of smart pressing doesn’t let the opposition break free from the high press, one of the major shifts in tactics in the modern game philosophy.
Areas of improvement
Joe lost possession of the ball 26 times this season at a rate of 12.4 times per 90 minutes. That is very high for a player who occupies a central position in the team. This is because he doesn’t go strong into the duels or 50-50 challenges. He is quick on his feet but needs to commit more to a challenge rather than just block it. If he works on winning his duels, in his position, he can directly launch an attack closer to the opposition’s goal.
Usually a fine player on the ball, Joe has shown a tendency to lose the ball in the midfield when under immediate pressure. Because he is conscious of the presence of an opponent player close to him, his first touch was loose, and eventually lost the ball in the instance captured in the picture above. He has lost possession too many times this way. Not sure if Mikel Arteta trusts him enough in the tighter situation to start him in the midfield!
Another possible area of improvement for Joe is decision making when playing in between the lines. Here Mustafi plays a good pass to Joe bypassing the opponent’s attack and midfield lines. And Joe had positioned himself very well to receive this pass, while not being marked. In such situations, Joe must let the ball come to him and turn towards the goal, instead of moving towards the ball and taking a touch backward. This is more about the decision making in these moments that he needs to focus on, over the skill needed to do so.
Valuable for Arsenal
Joe Willock is not a very flashy attacking player, but he is one of the most effective players in attacking positions. His off the ball movement is something Arsenal miss in the final third. In the picture above we can see him making a run behind the defender especially with the opposition full-back pulled out of position. This creates space for Ainsley Maitland Nile to run into if the defender tracks Joe’s run. Or Joe becomes a dangerous passing option if the defender moves forward to press Ainsley Maitland Niles. In this case, Joe easily received the pass and played a cross unmarked in a dangerous area.
With one of the high xG stats for goals and assists, Joe shares the top spot with Nicholas Pepe for the highest number of goals (2) and shots on target (4 out of 6) for any Arsenal player this season. Though it is too early to focus on stats, with players like Aubameyang and Lacazatte not firing, it clearly highlights the effectiveness that Joe Willock brings to this Arsenal team.
At the age of 21, Joe is young enough to start every game for Arsenal. But he could be a player that Arsenal can rely on to have an impact during the season. He must be the go-to player if Mikel Arteta wishes to change the team structure from 5-2-3 to 4-2-1-3. Not many players in Arsenal’s squad offer attributes as Joe does. As per the analysis, his off-the-ball intelligence and effectiveness in the final third are needed especially in the current situation for Arsenal.
I don’t see him moving away from the club as he will be spending more time on the pitch for Arsenal than on the bench. He is part of the future along with Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson, Bukayo Saka, and other emerging players for Arsenal.