Joe Willock was Steve Bruce’s real hero as the Arsenal loanee made his Newcastle United debut with a goal in victory over Southampton on Saturday afternoon.
The 21-year-old got his time in black and white off to the perfect start by opening the scoring after just 16 minutes, side-footing home Allan Saint-Maximin’s delivery on the Frenchman’s return to the opening line-up.
Miguel Almiron later doubled the Magpies’ lead by drilling the ball goal-bound and in off a Jan Bednarek. But there could be no doubt over his second in first-half stoppage-time, by pouncing on Alex McCarthy’s misdirected pass and slotting the ball into the Saints net.
But, after a sending off for Jeff Hendrick and an unfortunate injury for Fabian Schar, Newcastle were forced to dig in deep and batten down the hatches in order to see out the game with a 3-2 lead and claim only a second win in 13 matches across all competitions.
Willock had featured infrequently in north London this season before joining Newcastle on loan for the remainder of the term, earning the last of his two top-flight starts in November.
Isaac Hayden had urged Willock to now step out of his comfort zone to thrive at St. James’ Park after the Arsenal product sealed his Deadline Day move to Tyneside, having enjoyed the same schooling in the Gunners academy during the midfielder’s youth.
“He is going to add energy and drive to [the] midfield and he is something different to what we have already got in the squad,” Hayden told NUFC TV, via quotes by Chronicle Live. “He can move with the ball well from a deeper position and he has got an eye for a goal as well, so that will certainly be a good addition for us.
“I think he has played 70-odd games for Arsenal’s first-team and you don’t play that many times for Arsenal unless you are a decent player. It is up to him now to step out of his comfort zone and to prove why he wants to play for Arsenal in the future.”
Willock more than made an instant impact under Bruce against Southampton on Saturday, with the £20,000-per-week youngster getting his Newcastle career off the best start possible with a goal and a resolute showing at the other end of the field.
Bruce had searched throughout the mid-season transfer window for a new box-to-box midfielder and certainly seems to have found his answer in United’s Deadline Day addition, who could see his six-month loan lead to a season-long deal next term if he impresses.
Even before Hendrick was shown a second yellow card early in the second half, the Toon were struggling to stay in control of possession and ended Saturday’s win with a mere 25.9% share of the ball, per WhoScored.
Southampton being able to dictate the flow of the game meant Newcastle had to stand up defensively, but Willock accepted that challenge as willing and as comfortably as he scored his goal by running in late to meet Saint-Maximin’s delivery.
The £14.5m-rated youngster made a team-high five attempted tackles against Ralph Hasenhuttl’s visiting side – only Oriol Romeu (6) attempted more for the Saints but, unlike the Spaniard, Willock was successful with 100% of his efforts while his opposing number lost five of his duels.
Willock further made a joint team-high two interceptions to help the Magpies break up Southampton’s game plus two clearances, with defensive trio Hayden (6), Paul Dummett (7) and Emil Krafth (6) the only Toon men to keep things simple in protecting Karl Darlow’s net on more occasions.
Bruce would have also been pleased to see Willock never shy away from taking possession with the England U21 international recording 35 touches – more than £70k-p/w Jonjo Shelvey (28), Hayden (32) and just one shy of Almiron (36). And with the ball at his feet, Willock registered two of Newcastle’s four key passes – creating the same number of chances as Saint-Maximin, who ended the day with a pair of assists.
A debut win could not have gone much better for Willock and while it took Bruce all month to land a new midfielder, he certainly would seem to have struck gold in the Arsenal product.