As Arsenal started their preseason in Australia with a routine 2-0 win, there were some surprising names in the starting eleven.
Kristin Bielik has played half a season at the sharp end of the Championship, helping to keep Birmingham City up, and Cohen Brammell has had experience playing against mature men, albeit at a much lower level, and as such both are logical choices for pre-season exposure.
It was the selections of seventeen year-olds Riess Nelson at right-wing back and Joe Willcok as Coquelin’s partner in midfield, and their respective performances, that caught the imagination and the eye.
The younger of the two, Nelson, has been in a lot of people’s consciousness for some time, excelling at every age group so far for club and country, already cementing his position as a regular in the Arsenal u-23 side and bringing impressive levels of end product. A quick scan of YouTube will bring up lots of highlight videos. His pace, dribbling and use of the ball will not have surprised your average obsessive Gooner.
Joe Willock, on the other hand, has flown rather more under the radar. As such, his discipline, mature use of the ball and, on occasion, tackling were impressive. His first half run and shot also offered a glimpse of his potential. Most pleasing of all, however, was the level of confidence he displayed.
Even in the gentler realm of pre-season friendlies, some youngsters can look overwhelmed, and often play within themselves, but Joe seemed very much one comfortable with his surroundings, and the company he was keeping.
But who is he?
Turning 18 late next month, Joseph Willock (from Waltham Forest) has been a regular in Arsenal’s u18 team for the last couple of years, cementing himself firmly as first choice at that level over the last twelve months.
However, with two older brothers having already come through the academy, he has somewhat developed in their shadow, particularly with his immediate elder Chris being the subject of praise for so long.
With Matthew having established himself in Manchester United’s u23’s via Reading, having not made the grade in north London, and following Chris’s surprise defection to Benfica having run his contract down, Joe is now the only Willock left at the club, and so our eyes fall on him, particularly with his promising hour and a bit in midfield in Sydney.
His success as the more controlled part of a central pivot pair with the aggressive Coquelin was particularly pleasing given the fact that the majority of his career to date has been spent in more advanced roles.
Having first come to our attention in the under-18s playing behind a lone striker, Willock also spent extended spells as a narrow wide player on either flank, and even had spells leading the attack as a ‘false-nine’.
Even regular followers of the academy will struggle to recall more than a handful of games where Willock has featured in a deeper role from the start, but it is a transition that started with some success late last season.
With a modest return of four goals and four assists in 21 under-18 regular season Premier League games and only a couple of cameos at u23 level, it could seem surprising that he has leapfrogged others in the youth set-ups in order to participate in Australia. That said, stepping up to the level of first-team involvement in pre-season makes more sense if one more looks more closely at his recent development.
As his physical development has taken a step forward, so has his effectiveness, with the six spring games against the best of his peers at the u18 PL Final Stage yielding four goals and six assists as Arsenal narrowly lost out to Chelsea as national champions (see here for a full explanation of the new rules at u18 level).
As a central player, he is very much in the modern mould, possessing good stature, a turn of pace and good ball-skills in tight areas. While he lacks some of the strength, bite and explosive shooting of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, there is more natural craft to his game, and as such, he presents a different and potentially complimentary option, at both u23 level and in cup football as the season progresses.
Certainly the summer promotion of the aforementioned Maitland-Niles and Nelson to regular first team squad consideration will open more opportunities for Willock to flourish in the second string, and it would not be a surprise to see him make the squad for less challenging League Cup and Europa League fixtures.
In case you missed the game or want to see more, here’s another video to whet the appetite.