Balance in life is everything. Football is certainly no different. From the tactics board, to how you handle training sessions, and necessary growth in the way you handle the human aspect of management, balance is at the core of it all.
When it comes to Arsenal Football Club, probably the biggest criticism surrounding the club – for years – has been the undeniable lack of it in all areas.
From squad balance to the way the hierarchy negotiated the market, to an overall lack of faith in Hale End, Arsenal found itself in desperate need of retooling under marshal Sanllehi and his subordinate officers.
But the murmurings have been there for some time now regarding the academy; Arsenal was on the cusp of developing – for the first time in decades – real, genuine homegrown talent.
The excitement around our youth pipeline was predominately laid at the feet of Reiss Nelson, Emile Smith Rowe, Bukayo Saka, and Eddie Nketiah. Much of that continued when both Nelson and ESR earned loan moves to Bundesliga clubs last season, while Nketiah’s continued development was evident while he remained in the first-team squad.
Furthermore, the inclusion and contributions from Saka during pre-season were lovely to see considering his tender age, but perhaps the most impressive leap forward was taken by none other than Joe Willock.
Born and bred in the northeast London borough of Waltham Forest, Willock came through the academy from a young age. A prime example of what so many supports want to see the club put real investment in, many are finally asking if now is the time to put faith in youth products, regardless of who the club have at their disposal.
Age is just a number
Look across Europe, and you’ll see the lack of hesitation when it comes to the utilization of young players, particularly products of your academy. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
However, the debate has always been just how much faith should you be willing to put in young players in a league as competitive and star-laden as the Premier League.
Arsène Wenger was a proponent of the moniker that “young players cost you points.” Overall, he’s not too wide of the mark. As they grow and develop as footballers both in terms of ability but also the mental side of the game, most young players – no matter how gifted – are more prone to making costly errors.
In a competition as pressure-filled as the Premier League is, where each and every week there is never a guaranteed result, the risk of leaning too heavily on young talent is a real one. Wenger was not wrong in his assessment, however, he did put faith in the right young players at the right time. Cesc Fàbregas, Jack Wilshere, and Héctor Bellerín come to mind as prime examples.
Perhaps that is the difference overall. In leagues such as the Eredivisie, Jupiler Pro, Ligue1, the Bundesliga to an extent (to say nothing of the fact of the systems featured in countries like Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Denmark, and Austria), young players are afforded far more chances over longer periods of time.
While this suits their overall development greatly, the level of play in some of these nations are vastly inferior to that of what transpires in the grounds across England.
But that fear is changing amongst the top echelon of English football – either by necessity or design. Thus far, Willock’s appearances lend weight to the fact that he is ready for more.
Ramsey’s in-house replacement
The loan move for Dani Ceballos this summer looked to resemble the Arsenal brass undertaking definitive action to answer the question of who would replace Aaron Ramsey after his eventual move to Juventus.
Brilliant for the Spain U21’s in a summer which saw him put excellent performances one after the other, a seemingly x-factor central player was brought in to help Unai Emery build a more balanced squad.
But questions could have – and in some circles certainly were – been asked as to why we only opted for a loan move rather than a full purchase of a player in a position as vital as the centre of the park. What if the emergence of Willock is that reason?
Investing substantial sums of money on players when you – despite the purse strings opening – are running a sustainable model, must be done in a more insistent way. Spend when you know that the incoming player will have an unquestionable role in your team both in the present and moving forward.
Considering the fact that Ceballos and Willock play in similar positions, in a similar style, it could well be that the Spaniard is only needed for one season as Willock continues to progress in his own development.
In the end, there’s every chance that we end up bringing Ceballos in on a full deal next summer, depending on his future prospects at the Bernabeu. However, the brass’ hand may be forced in another direction of Willock puts in performances that are commensurate with the level we want a regularly contributing midfielder to produce.
At the moment, the door is wide open for him, and if he walks through and enjoys the floor plan, that’s a good thing.
Newcastle performance and the current evidence
Part of youth progression is giving them the chances to perform when they show value or performance levels ahead of what you’d expect, beyond in training or in the U23’s. In the case of Willock, he was arguably the best player in our pre-season program and was justly rewarded with a start at St. James’ Park.
Despite only completing sixty-six minutes away from home, Willock produced an xGChain90 of 0.49, and an xGBuildup90 of 0.42, dwarfing his contributions in those same categories from his league outings last term.
In comparison to last term, his Sh90 of 1.36 last week was half of his 2.73 average in the tail- end of last league campaign. While these are small sample sizes, it does indicate a potential changing of the guard in terms of how he is viewed tactically.
Despite spending much of his time on the pitch in forward areas (though credit must be given for his off-ball work in tracking back), his pass completion percentage (73.7%) shows his willingness to be far more direct and involved in the build-up than last season, where his late runs into the area were more Ramseyesque.
When Granit Xhaka still maintains his place in the team as first-choice on the left side of the midfield pivot, Willock gives an ever-growing central option of a player who is willing to be different than the Swiss international.
Progressing play through a more direct approach is precisely what this team needs to provide balance though in a player of his ilk.
It is important that – assuming he continues to grow, despite his tender age – that we give him the freedom, responsibility, and faith required to take his chances as they present themselves.
If he’s good enough, he’s old enough.