Arsenal loanee Joe Willock was the silver lining of Newcastle United’s 2-0 loss to Chelsea on Monday night after playing with the confidence that his teammates lacked.
The Magpies were despairingly sorrow to the side that beat Southampton last time out and put two past Everton and Crystal Palace in recent weeks, with Steve Bruce clearly missing the lively presence of top-scorer Callum Wilson.
If the Stamford Bridge affair was a taste of what’s to come while Wilson is sidelined for up to two months with a hamstring injury, a relegation fight with Fulham will creep closer and closer while the Cottagers look a resurgent side.
Newcastle never looked deserving of a result in south west London with Chelsea dominant throughout as they start to adapt to Thomas Tuchel’s tactics, and sealed the result through goals from Olivier Giroud and Timo Werner – the Blues boasted 65% possession and out-shot the Magpies by eight.
Had it not been for Karl Darlow between the sticks, United could have been on the wrong end of a hammering, with the goalkeeper left to keep the score down without much protection from his defence.
The 30-year-old was forced to make two crucial saves early in the second half to offer the Toon even the slimmest hopes of a comeback, finger-tipping Callum Hudson-Odoi’s strike out for a corner before doing well to parry Cesar Azpilicueta’s subsequent low drive clear.
Chelsea full-back Reece James almost got his second goal of the season 10 minutes from time when the 21-year-old’s strike took a nick of Jamal Lewis, only for Darlow to kick clear the danger.
Willock had been unfortunate to not score his second goal in black and white in as many games just minutes before when Kepa Arrizabalaga produced a super late save to thwart the midfielder, whose header sent the Spaniard scrambling across his line to keep a clean sheet.
Willock had timed his run to perfection to get the jump on Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen to meet Ryan Fraser’s cross, but could neither find the top nor bottom corner with his header bouncing to a comfortable height for the jittery Arrizabalaga to palm wide.
His darting drive into the box epitomised the £14.4m-rated Arsenal product’s performance, having not shirked the challenge of facing top-four hopefuls Chelsea while others wilted.
No Newcastle player took more shots on goal than Willock (2), who matched his forward vision with grit in the engine room to attempt a game-high eight tackles, per WhoScored.
Only Lewis also attempted more than three challenges at Stamford Bridge, while only Isaac Hayden recorded a greater number of interceptions (3) than Willock (2), who additionally made one clearance while his fellow Gunners graduate did not.
Willock’s confidence in his ability was most evident when on the ball, with the 21-year-old completing 94% of his passes – no other United player who started completed more than 89%, while Dwight Gayle (88%) boasts the best per-game average at St. James’ Park among those to have featured more than twice in the league thus far this term.
Bruce will have to hope that Willock’s confidence to take games to top-tier opponents can start to rub off on his teammates, with Newcastle facing title-chasing Manchester United on Sunday.
AND in other news – Exclusive: Steve Howey drops verdict on Graeme Jones replacing Steve Bruce…