When on the hunt for new signings, someone always misses out.
Joe Willock may feel that way as Arsenal make inroads en route to a busy summer of transfer business, one that primarily centres around bulking up the midfield.
Remarkably, for someone who is not a regular starter in the team, no player made more first team appearances last term than the 21-year-old. His 20 starts and 24 substitute appearances matched Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang’s tally, although 41 of his came from the off.
At a time when Eddie Nketiah, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Bukayo Saka are flying the flag for the academy graduates, Willock’s contribution has flown under the radar somewhat. His main contribution came during the prematurely ended Europa League campaign, where his seven starts were more than any other player, but while there is genuine cause for optimism with him, a cloud of uncertainty lingers over his future involvement.
Another question, which many have asked, is what exactly does he do? A midfielder by trade, that is where he operated this season, but not in any one cemented slot. At times, he would come on as the clock ticked down playing as a false nine, in the attacking midfield slot or in a more regular box-to-box role.
While we’ve seen glimpses of talent in each of those positions, all of which bode well for this development, the fact nobody can quite pinpoint what his most suited role is suggests the manager doesn’t know either.
Where he has excelled, however, is on the ball. Let’s not get it mistaken, he has been guilty of careless passes and overambitious demands of his teammates, but the confidence he’s shown to even attempt such passes indicates a substantial degree of self-belief. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.
How Arteta envisages his standing within the squad moving forward might be evident enough in the targets he’s set his sights on this window. A midfield enforcer, as well as a creative outlet, are among the primary targets. On first glance, it doesn’t offer the most glowing assessment of Willock.
Whatever role it is that he is to play moving forward, the rumoured targets are an obvious upgrade on his current standing. That is quite clear. But it isn’t a slight on his ability.
Yet to make the step up, Arteta can’t rely on the squad he has now to return to the Champions League. The Englishman may fill that void in the years to come, but he’s a long way off.
Without a second take, he may be falling further down the pecking order.
No he isn’t. Not a starter last season and not likely to be one the coming season, given that Arsenal are looking to offload literally every midfielder bar Granit Xhaka at the club before Willock, Arteta must hold him in high regard.
For a moment, let’s pretend. Say if both (big if) Thomas Partey and Houssem Aouar come in and the ones up for sale left, then that would leave the central midfield area stocked with Dani Ceballos, Xhaka, Partey, Aouar, Emile Smith Rowe and Willock. Mesut Ozil left out for obvious reasons.
That…isn’t many. You’d back Willock to keep starting European matches as well as cup matches, while he’s a more than adequate squad player for rotation if fitness and suspension come into play. If anything, it actually looks brighter for the 21-year-old.
Nobody is expecting Willock to pull up trees next season, nor are they preparing for 30+ Premier League starts, but while on the face it may be worrying times for the midfielder, staying out of the headlines is in fact a blessing in disguise. Not to mention, the (hopefully) added injection of quality can only improve him as a player, not hinder him.