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Opinion

The route Steve Bruce has to take so Newcastle United can accommodate Joe Willock

5 months ago
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Arsenal loanee Joe Willock has greatly strengthened Newcastle’s fight against relegation since moving to St James Park in January.

The dynamic midfielder has now scored four goals in ten Premier League games (seven starts and three from the bench) for Newcastle and all of his goals have proved important.

At Anfield on Saturday, Newcastle looked to have been denied a vital point when VAR ruled out Callum Wilson’s injury time equaliser. However, in the dying moments, 21 year old Willock equalised, and Newcastle strengthened their position over the teams below them.

Three of Willock’s four Newcastle goals have come in his last three appearances, all games where he has made an impact off the bench.

When he scored the last minute equaliser against Tottenham, the late winner against West Ham, and Saturday’s leveller, Willock demonstrated his ability to support the strikers in the box, and finish clinically. This is something we have been crying out for in recent seasons.

When you consider Willock’s influence off the bench, it might suggest to some people that he may be best placed as a supersub.

However, that isn’t what the midfielder, or Arsenal, signed up for, Joe Willock was loaned to Newcastle to get game time.
Not only that, but he gives us a dimension that no other midfielder in our squad does, surely he has to start?

Joe Willock is ineligible to play next week against Arsenal but we still have four fixtures remaining after that. In these games Willock will be desperate to play more than an impact sub role.

The responsibility of fitting our most in-form midfielder into the side falls on Steve Bruce.

The Newcastle manager will have to decide whether he changes the personnel and / or the system, to give Willock the game time his performances warrant.

In changing the system, Bruce would have to revert back to a formation with four at the back. The most likely formation he would switch to would be the 4-3-1-2 formation that served his side well for a brief spell earlier in the year.

With the personnel available to Bruce, I believe the effectiveness of the 4-3-1-2 formation would be closer to that of our wins against Everton and Southampton, than our loss against Brighton and draw against West Brom.

The return of Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin means that the two forwards in this formation are players that we know play those roles well. In addition, it would allow Almiron the freedom that he previously had in this formation, where he too was far more effective than he was on the right yesterday.

This formation would also create another midfielder space, one which Joe Willock would fill. His late runs into the box are, again, proven to be valuable in this formation, with his goal against Southampton in our 3-2 win in February demonstrating that.

However, if Bruce wants to stick with the current system, a system that has utilised Matt Ritchie and Jacob Murphy in useful wing-back roles, then to include Willock he has to alter the personnel.

Sean Longstaff has been as industrious as ever since returning to the side. His workrate is a valuable asset and in a formation such as our current 5-4-1, his hard work is vital. Yes, he doesn’t necessarily cut open defences, or dribble past players, but he keeps it simple and breaks up the play well.

If Bruce was to drop Longstaff to accommodate Willock, Longstaff would certainly feel hard done by as he hasn’t put a foot wrong since his return.

Jonjo Shelvey, made captain by Bruce in Lascelles’ absence, would be the alternative to drop if Willock is to start in our current formation. I cannot see Shelvey being dropped by Bruce, although many fans would prefer to sacrifice him ahead of Longstaff, to accommodate Willock.

Shelvey is heavily criticised for his lack of workrate and in many games, this is fair criticism. Bruce seems to enjoy allowing Shelvey to play a quarterback role, picking out long balls and spreading the play left and right. Whilst you can afford to do that when you have three midfielders, Bruce is taking a huge risk to play a midfielder of his style when the formation only has two midfielders.

Despite this, I don’t think any fans believe that Bruce would ever drop Shelvey.

With this in mind, I think the more likely solution to Bruce’s selection dilemma is a formation change. I can see Bruce switching back to a 4-3-1-2, where he knows Callum Wilson is effective up top.

This formation served us well during the end of January and start of February but became significantly less effective after the injuries to Wilson and Saint-Maximin.

With their return, and the need to include the in-form Joe Willock, this seems to be the most likely route Steve Bruce will take to accommodate them all.

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