After months of waiting, the protracted transfer saga of Joe Willock to Newcastle United is finally over.
Following a successful loan spell with the Magpies in the second half of the 20/21 season, the central midfielder has arrived on a 6-year deal from Arsenal for a reported fee of around £25 million.
For all of his faults, Bruce’s assessment of Newcastle’s midfield needing “more legs” and a “box-to-box” player has been proven to be spot on.
Last January, his decision to bring in Willock on loan resulted in the youngster netting 8 goals in 1,216 minutes and equalling Alan Shearer’s record of scoring in 7 consecutive games.
With all this in mind, I wanted to look under the hood of Willock’s achievements and pull together a mix of data sources and visualisations to add more detail on what the central midfielder will bring to the club in the longer term.
Elite shooting for a central midfielder
A quick look at his scouting report on sports data site FBREF reveals that Willock’s shooting skills are impressive.
From the right of a central midfield three in the 3-5-2 / 5-3-2 formation that Newcastle favoured during the 20/21 Spring season, Willock was given license to use his athleticism to drive the team forward, arrive late in the box and attempt to convert any chances that came his way.
Compared to other central midfielders in Europe’s top 5 leagues, Willock compares favourably. He ranks in the 99th percentile (out of 100) for goals (0.59 Per 90 mins), the 88th percentile for total shots (1.55 per 90) and the 99th percentile for shots on target (57.1%).
What makes Willock’s shooting super effective, is the areas in which he chooses to take his shots. With an average shot distance of just 12.6 yards, even a good Premier League keeper is left with very little reaction time.
In the graphic below you can see all of Willock’s shot locations across the 20/21 season. They are grouped in the high-value central positions in front of the goal with few long-range efforts and misses, showing just how effective Willock is at choosing the right moment to pull the trigger.
Relentless pressing & surprisingly tough tackling
Shooting isn’t the only noteworthy aspect of Willock’s game. The data shows that he’s a high energy presser of the ball with a knack for winning back possession. He’s in the 98th percentile for pressures (27.61 per 90), interceptions (2.74 per 90), blocks (2.89 per 90) and passes blocked (per 90) and his 5.55 tackles and interceptions per 90 are close to the output of Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante (5.85 Tkl+Int per 90).
Before we all get carried away, it should be noted that in 20/21 Newcastle were one of the Premier League’s most defensive and least possession-hungry teams. While this meant that Willock had a lot of team opportunities to increase his defensive stats, his personal output is still impressive.
Willock’s energy and ability to cover the pitch played a big part in Newcastle’s “Springtime Bounce” as described by Carlon Carpenter in his 21/22 season preview. As you can see in the data visualisation below, 44% of all Willock’s defending took place in the opponents half, helping the team win the ball higher up the pitch than before his (and Graeme Jones’) arrival.
His passing game needs improvement
So, if he’s an elite shooter and good at defending, then why are Arteta and Arsenal willing to sell Willock? Put simply, his passing quality isn’t near the level of other central midfielders in the league.
It’s a tradeoff that Arteta isn’t willing to live with as he looks to implement a possession-focus style of football.
While this is an area for Willock’s development, his passing stats should be placed in the wider context of his role in Newcastle’s team. In the visualisation below, we see some sonar diagrams that indicate direction and on pitch locations for midfielder passing directions in key areas.
What this shows is that Willock often takes on aggressive mid and long-range passes that aren’t consistently successful. So while his defensive numbers are boosted by Newcastle’s defensive nature, his passing numbers are impacted by how poorly the team attack as a unit, and Willock is forcing the play to help create more chances.
When looking at passing aggression across the league, a recent Statsbomb article revealed that Willock’s habit for playing aggressive passes – which are typically more difficult to complete – was similar to Man City’s Kevin De Bruyne.
This aggression reveals Willock’s hybrid role in the team. Trapped in the space between a traditional #8 and #10, he is taking on the role of a creator and giving Newcastle’s attack more teeth. He needs to improve, but it isn’t an area of huge concern.
Another indication of Willock’s hybrid role is the number of passes he receives in advanced positions. Willock’s receives nearly 1 in 10 of his passes in the oppositions penalty area, and more than half of his pass receptions are in the opponents half as well.
In such tightly fought spaces, it is little wonder that his passing stats suffer when compared to deeper-lying midfielders.
Conclusions & Radar
So with all that in mind, let me draw a few conclusions about the deal. As a Newcastle United fan, I’m ecstatic that Steve Bruce convinced Mike Ashley to shell out for a permanent deal to bring back Joe Willock after his free-scoring loan spell.
However, it’s important to note that Willock’s hot run of finishing is unlikely to be sustainable over the course of a full season. The midfielder out-performed his total non-penalty expected goals (3.1 npxG) by a heap last season and his shot accuracy (57.1%) is close to that of a striker — personally, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to imagine that he can match 8 league goals again, and potentially get into double figures too.
More importantly, under Mike Ashley’s unambitious Newcastle United, I think the Willock deal represents something a little greater. Converting Willock’s loan into a permanent deal is exactly the sort of thing a club at Newcastle’s current level should be doing to grow. Giving ‘Big-6’ youngsters a platform to get minutes, getting them hooked on game time, selling the club and the city.
The Willock deal is an example that can be used to convince other talented youngsters stuck on the bench at ‘Big-6’ clubs that St. James Park is a place they can ignite their career. Surely, this can only be a good thing for the club.