Joe Willock has been a vital part of Newcastle’s improvement
When is it time to talk about Joe Willock? The Newcastle midfielder has been a vital part of their seemingly unassailable ascent to Champions League qualification, but it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest he hasn’t quite got the credit he deserves.
In pretty much every aspect of Newcastle’s incredibly rapid rise since their takeover in October 2021, credit has been given elsewhere. New signings like Kieran Trippier, Nick Pope, Bruno Guimaraes and Alexander Isak have elevated the team to an entirely new level, while Eddie Howe’s tactical tweaks and work with Joelinton, Miguel Almiron and Jacob Murphy have been the focus of much attention, too.
Perhaps it is easy to forget how much work has gone into Willock, too. He arrived at Newcastle in January 2021 on an initial loan from Arsenal; a goalscoring midfielder, he was seen as something of catalyst in a poor team to help them survive with the bare minimum intervention from the previous owner, Mike Ashley. Seven goals in as many games saw him equal a club record, and he became a fan favourite immediately. The clamour to sign him on a permanent basis was huge, and although that became a reality for £25m in the summer, no other business was done.
As a result, an undercooked squad, both in terms of quality and fitness, drifted dangerously. By the time the takeover happened, Newcastle were winless and aimless; fans were fuming and manager Steve Bruce knew his time was up. Willock was far from the only one underperforming, but he didn’t have the same spark of inspiration he did during his loan spell.
Enter Howe; as mentioned, others have been the focus before him, but that might just be changing, Willock’s stunning pass for Isak in that astonishing win over Tottenham last week caught the attention of the watching world. His energy, pace and dribbling ability have made him into a very well-rounded midfielder and a vital part of the machine that Howe is building on Tyneside.
The defining characteristic of this Newcastle side is intensity. They roar and they overpower and they bully. Willock’s raw skills made him ideal for Howe’s team, and the most enduring quality of his management style so far has been an unerring ability to examine a player who may not be performing at the right level, decipher what their strength is and play towards it so the player plays well above themselves, or finds a new level entirely. You can see Joelinton, Almiron, Murphy and now Willock for graduates from the exact same school.
If anybody believes Newcastle’s push towards the top is down to their new-found riches, they are not paying attention. Yes, Isak and Bruno, their two biggest and most audacious signings, have played a huge part, but all of those players named above were at the club under Bruce and Ashley, aimlessly floundering and on the verge of relegation to the Championship, completely shot of confidence.
A Newcastle presence in the England squad is now taken for granted. Pope and Trippier were regulars before they arrived, but Callum Wilson’s inclusion in the World Cup squad is proof that Gareth Southgate is taking note of the improvement at St James’ Park. Willock scored a stunning winner against Chelsea in the final match before the break for Qatar, and has continued to develop since then. Surely international recognition is only a matter of time.
When asked about Willock’s season and England chances before the Everton win on Thursday, Howe praised the former Arsenal midfielder.
“His season has steadily got better. His performances have consistently been improving,” he said.
“I don’t see frustration [at the lack of an England call], I sense a desire to play for his country. He knows he has to prove he deserves it. He is in a good place, physically, mentally.
“The challenge is for him to keep that up. If he can get more goals, I’d love that. He’s capable.”
That Howe wants more goals from Willock, given that was seen as his best attribute when he arrived and made such an impact in that sense initially, speaks to his growth over recent months.
For all the talk of others and their impacts at Newcastle this season, Willock’s cannot be forgotten and should be amplified.