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Joe Willock is an invaluable signing for Newcastle United - but Arsenal may have cashed in at just the right time

Joe Willock
(Image credit: Getty)

With every goal, Mike Ashley’s heart sank. Probably, anyway. 

Newcastle’s owner is famously keen on a bargain and Joe Willock’s end-of-season scoring spree was scarcely a way of reducing his price or camouflaging his capabilities. As Willock emulated Alan Shearer, the only previous man to score in seven successive Premier League games for Newcastle, Arsenal felt the winners. As he scored against five of the top seven, Ashley’s chances of getting a discount disappeared. 

Perhaps, given his negotiating tactics, the saga would have stretched out over the summer anyway. Now, it is belatedly nearing its conclusion. At a price in excess of £20 million, Willock will not come cheap. He will join Joelinton, Miguel Almiron and Callum Wilson in the group of Newcastle’s four most expensive signings ever. A potential front four that could be divided into two categories: those who proved themselves in the Premier League before joining and those who did not; those who can finish and those who cannot.

And if that may be a little unfair to Almiron to bracket him with Joelinton, the Brazilian may, in turn, argue he had a goal glut after Willock’s arrival: relatively speaking, anyway, when he scored three times in seven league games, as many as he had mustered in the previous 61. 

Willock nevertheless felt the anti-Joelinton, the overachiever, the ebullient catalyst who lifted spirits and improved results alike. Less was expected of him and he delivered more.

And yet Willock’s spring form represented an outlier. That he – not Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand, Craig Bellamy, Peter Beardsley or a host of other gifted goalscorers to have plied their trade at St James’ Park – became bracketed with Shearer felt wonderfully anomalous. His goal run is logically unsustainable: his eight for Newcastle came from just 12 shots on target and a mere 17 attempts in total. Whether Willock operates as a No. 10 or, as has been mooted, as one of two No. 8s this season, a return in double figures would be excellent.

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If his potent spell for Newcastle could have looked embarrassing for Arsenal – in seven games, he managed more goals than Martin Odegaard, Emile Smith Rowe, Willian, Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos, Mohamed Elneny and Ainsley Maitland-Niles did between them for his parent club in the entire campaign – it also reflected his style of play.

As his Europa League outings for Arsenal illustrated, Willock is a fine finisher with a capacity to get into goalscoring positions. Perhaps he has a relatively small skill-set, but it is based on the most important talent of all: for putting the ball in the back of the net. He belongs in the tradition of potent midfielders who did comparatively little else. He may be a modern-day Kevin Nolan, even, without touching such heights, a 21st-century David Platt.

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If he was Newcastle’s anti-Joelinton, he was Arsenal’s anti-Smith Rowe. The Gunners’ new No. 10 was a revelation last season; his movement, verve and ball-carrying ability allowed him to knit the team together and for them to move upfield as more of an attacking force. But Smith Rowe has scope for improvement as a scorer: put Willock’s goals on to Smith Rowe’s all-round game and Arsenal would have a formidable player. Perhaps Willock suits Newcastle better, a team who will have less of the ball but require a poacher in the box.

Even as goals eluded Arsenal last autumn, Mikel Arteta only granted Willock two league starts. In part, that is the Willian effect, the favouritism afforded to an awful signing coming at a cost to all the youngsters. But it also illustrates that Arteta prefers the technicians, the players with higher pass completion rates, who move the ball between the thirds better.

Willock, who can run without the ball into the box, has curiously unfashionable attributes. They proved perfect for an old-school manager, in Steve Bruce, last season. They should make him popular at Newcastle again. But, after Willock was the top scorer in the final two months of last season’s Premier League, the probability is that the best run of his career is already behind him. Ashley may be counting the cost of that inspired burst.

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