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Joe Willock and Arsenal’s move to a 4-3-3: A Match Made in Heaven

By Rob Worthington (Deputy Editor)

As early as December 2020, with Mikel Arteta less than a year into his tenure as Arsenal manager, the Spaniard announced “we want to move to a 433.” However, he identified a lack of “specificity” in “five or six positions” as the obstacle in his way which prevented a shift in formation.

Arsenal’s squad now looks very different to how it did in December 2020. The cull of January 2021’s Winter transfer window saw stars such as Mesut Özil, Shokdran Mustafi, Sead Kolasniac and Sokratis all given their marching orders. Meanwhile, Martin Ødegaard and Maty Ryan were brought in on short-term deals to increase the strength of Arteta’s squad temporarily.

The Summer transfer window is now officially open and it appears another cull is upon us. David Luiz has already officially left the club, his compatriot Willian looks soon to follow while the likes of Bernd Leno, Granit Xhaka and Hector Bellerin are also said to be seeking a move away from Arsenal.

This presents Mikel Arteta with an opportunity. An opportunity to rebuild and reconstruct. Rebuild and reconstruct in such a manner which enables him to finally introduce the 433 to his Arsenal side. A 433 he would have been yearning to deploy since his late 2019 appointment.

Indeed, Arteta has experimented with the formation here and there. Most significantly, he chose to set up in said system against Villarreal in the home leg of the dismal Europa League semi-final. Few fans wanted to see its return thereafter.

However, its failure can likely be ascribed to the lack of “specificity” Arteta referred to last year. His centre-backs, Rob Holding and Pablo Mari, didn’t possess apt passing range, Calum Chambers is straightforwardly too immobile to play right-back in such a set-up and Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Ødegaard looked lost as free #8s.

The team itself probably hadn’t prepared in the set up in the days prior to the game, also. Granit Xhaka’s injury in the warm-up severely hampered Mikel Arteta’s plans, and may have forced his hand in regard to the formation change. Nevertheless, that was no excuse for the pathetic performance on the night.

Given Arteta’s stubborn nature, he’ll doubtlessly want to make the formation a success at Arsenal. It certainly won’t be the last we see of it if Mikel Arteta stays at Arsenal beyond the foreseeable future. This Summer will be all about acquiring the “specificity” to make the change possible.

Having said that, he does have one player fit for one position in the 433 who possesses all the “specificity” a manager could ever want. That position is the right-sided free #8. And that player is Joe Willock.

As has been well-documented, WIllock enjoyed a phenomenal loan spell at Newcastle during the second half of the Premier League season. The 21-year-old Hale End academy product bagged 8 goals capturing the hearts of the Toon Army. Of course, the Newcastle fans want their club to sign the Englishman permanently, but Mikel Arteta may have something to say about that.

Operating as right-sided #8 in a 4312 for Newcastle, Willock showed Mikel Arteta why January’s temporary goodbye might not be a long-term goodbye. In a 4231, Willock has always struggled. He’s neither a player who enjoys operating in a double pivot or as a #10. He’s at his best as a right-sided central midfielder in a flat three, something many Arsenal fans already knew given his success playing there in the group stages of the 20/21 Europa League.

There’s a simple reason for why Willock enjoys his football so much in such a role - his athleticism. Willock’s lengthy stride enables him to ghost up and down the pitch seamlessly. He’s happy to put in the hard yards defensively and crucially, he loves getting himself into the opposition’s penalty area.

And that is exactly what you want from a free #8. You want offensive contribution from a player in that role, but you also want someone with the temperament to help his team off the ball. If Willock’s loan spell with the Magpies is anything to go by, he excels in this regard also averaging 26.38 pressures, 2.21 interceptions and 2.75 blocks per 90. For context, this lands him in the 97th percentile and above in all three criteria in comparison to midfielders from Europe’s Big Five leagues. For a statistician, Willock is a midfielding phenomena.

While he isn’t the most creative midfielder, going forward, his quality was obvious during his time with Newcastle. And his output was no fluke either. He averaged 0.29 non-penalty expected goals/90 and 1.77 dribbles/90. This time, ranking in the 92nd percentile in terms of dribbles and the 99th (!) for non-penalty expected goals. We are yet to see Willock perform in such a manner over a prolonged period, but if his Newcastle return is anything to go by, Willock has a big, big future ahead of him.

Of course, there are limitations to Willock’s game, which have been apparent for a while. He’s by no means the most secure passer of the ball, as evidenced by his notably low pass completion rate of 80.8% with Newcastle. In a possession-based side unlike Newcastle, this could pose issues, but with two cultured players alongside him, this shouldn’t be too problematic in a 433.

Thus, if Mikel Arteta indeed wants to push on with his plans to shift his formation to a 433, the idea of moving Joe Willock on permanently shouldn’t even be entertained. On the contrary, he should be welcomed back to pre-season as a crucial piece of Mikel Arteta’s 21/22 season jigsaw.

However, as Daniel, Alfie and I discussed on our podcast recently, if Arteta thinks Arsenal aren’t ready for a formation change quite yet, the debate opens up considerably. If Arsenal persist with the 4231, Willock would be wasted at the club next season.

Ultimately, Arsenal’s approach to the Willock situation should be a simple one. If a move to a 433 is imminent - he stays, end of. If it isn’t, and a sizeable offer comes in for him, his sale must be considered. Willock’s stock may never be higher than it is now.

One thing is for certain, however. Regardless of where Joe Willock goes in his career, he will score goals if he is allowed to operate as a right-sided #8. He is a unique player with a unique profile and a rash sale this Summer could leave Arsenal kicking themselves.

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