Four Joe Willock alternatives that Newcastle should scout during pre-season
With the Joe Willock transfer saga still up in the air, and players returning to their clubs from their holidays. Pre-season is just beginning, Arsenal have their first friendly on July 13th while Newcastle have to wait until the 18th for their opener. As time ticks on the likelihood of this deal being sanctioned becomes more unlikely, with rumors speculating that Arteta now plans to keep Willock.
The thought of replacing Willock is chilling, the way he won over the fans, and improved Newcastle tactically in such a small timeframe speaks volumes about his mentality to do well. He conducted himself well on and off the pitch, always maintained a professional yet joyful tone in his post-match interviews, showing his affection for the city of Newcastle, and the relationship he has with his peers.
Looking at Willock statistically prior to joining, a player with only 328 minutes under his belt with 0 goals, 0 assists, and an xG+xA of 0.18 didn't look like he was going to elevate Newcastle's attacking output. In the 14 games Willock featured for Newcastle, his attacking and defensive contributions were more than anyone could have ever anticipated. Despite only playing so few games, Willock's physical condition when arriving at Newcastle was a testament to his character and Bruce utilized this by playing him in four different positions across the midfield, and trying him in four different formations. Most notably, his best performances came when being deployed as a central midfielder on the left/right in a 5-3-2 or the 4-3-1-2 where his contributions in that position helped Newcastle secure 13 points out of a total of 33. During that time Willock scored 8 goals with an xG of 0.33, which is an impressive return for a box-to-box midfielder, and playing in a side where leading goalscorer Callum Wilson was absent for 12 of his matches.
Without knowing how far along a transfer negotiation is (if there is one) for Willock, the head scout at the club, Steve Nickson will need to start searching for his replacement. The club's transfer budget also remains a mystery, and our club tends to avoid showing ambition where they can. With the global loss in football because of the pandemic, and a never-ending takeover, there are plenty of reasons to expect that we won't try and sign a replacement at all.
With the help of these statistic websites; FBref.com, whoscored.com, sofascore.com, and Footballlia.net. I have created a shortlist of four candidates that play the same role, and who’s statistical numbers are similar to Willock's.
Player 1: Mattias Svanberg
The 20/21 season was Mattias Svanbergs most active season of his career within the Italian Serie A. starting 24 of the 34 matches he played this season and scoring 5 goals from an xG of 4.1, more than any other midfielder at Bologna. Though he has scored fewer goals than Willock, Svanberg still takes 2.77 shots per 90 at goal with 0.83 shots on target per 90, which suggests he consistently gets into the right spaces in the attacking 3rd.
This season Svanberg has played alongside the more defensive-minded Jerdy Schouten in a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-2-1 which shows he is capable of adapting when needed to. Svanberg has the tendency to push further and make himself an available passing option for his team by standing in space where he can play a 1-2 or turn to carry the ball. By the end of this season, Svanberg registered 2 assists with an xA record of 2.5, with an 80.3% pass completion, and play 3.4 progressive passes per 90 as well as a minimum of 70% completed passes for short, medium, and long-range.
Standing at 6ft tall, Svanberg is mobile enough to cope with the physical demands of English football, his defensive output was the weakest area of his game last season but his stats in these areas appear to be improving over time. Where he lacks in defensive contributions he makes up for it with his spatial awareness and technical ability.
Transfermarkt value Svanberg at £10.80m, if he is available then this would be a smart signing but there is reported interest shown from AC Milan and Napoli.
Player 2: Elvis Rexhbecaj (rex-beck-aj)
A product of Wolfsburg's academy in the German Bundesliga, Elvis Rexhbecaj went out on loan to fellow Bundesliga club - FC Koln for the 20/21 season where he instantly became a regular on the team she
FC Koln avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth after beating Holstein Kiel in the relegation play-offs. Rexhbecaj didn't play in the playoffs due to injury but his contributions throughout the season played a big part in ensuring FC Koln didn't end up already relegated. To add context to that, using FBref stats for FC Koln 20/21, Rexbecaj was in the top 3 for Goals, Assists, and xA: 5 goals, 2 Assists, and xA 2.3.
Rexhbecaj has played primarily on the left in a midfield double pivot in a 5-2-2-1/3-4-2-1 and has an exceptional work rate on and off the ball. Using the heatmap below as a reference, the map tells us that he covers a lot of ground during a football match, primarily on the left channel spaces which would work nicely if he were to join us as this would allow ASM more freedom on the attack and Jamal Lewis to more attacking runs.
Defensively Rexhbecaj is more aggressive than conservative in the way he conducts himself. He tends to commit most of his per 90 tackles(1.42) and per 90 pressures in the midfield 3rd(10.2). Transfermarkt value Rexhbecaj at £3.60m, a cheaper option to Joe Willock and less of the player but could be an absolute steal.
Player 3: Teun Koopmeiners
A more defensive-minded box-to-box midfielder, Koopmeiners is the captain of AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch Eredivisie. Like everyone else on this list, he has enjoyed his most prolific campaign to date by scoring an impressive 15 goals (joint 1st for Alkmaar) and a total of 5 assists (joint 3rd) equalling a total of 20 goals contributions in 31 appearances, averaging a goal or an assist every 155 minutes.
Another left-footer on this ist, like Rexhbacaj, Koopmeiners roams up and down the pitch primarily on the left-hand side but is competent enough to play on either side acting as the midfield general for his team. Standing at over 6ft tall, he has enough mobility in his locker to potentially match the intensity of English football.
Adding another captain to the dressing room will suit keeping morale up and instilling players much-needed confidence that they can achieve their true potential.
With a contract that runs out in two years' time and is valued at £14.85mil on Transfermarkt.
Player 4: Joe Aribo
Before joining Rangers, Aribo came from Lee Bowyers Charlton Athletic right after beating Sunderland in the League one playoffs at Wembley. Aribo is versatile, quick, and strong, has played on the wing but primarily as a central midfielder in a 4-3-3.
The 20/21 campaign was his most active whilst at the club, ending the season with a total of 9 goals, averaging 1.91 shots per 90.
But his creative side is where Aribo stands out with his stats, Aribo excels when the team is going on the attack. 3.9 dribbles per 90 with 1.5 key passes per 90, Aribo can carry the ball into dangerous areas or shield the ball so he can create links with teammates.
Valued at £5.85m on Transfermarkt, this would be another cliche Newcastle low valued transfer.
My choice for a replacement for Joe Willock is Mattias Svanberg, a solid box-to-box midfielder with decent passing statistics, which suggests Newcastle will become a more efficient counter attacking unit. A player like this alongside Hayden or Mario Lemina (if we sign from Southampton) will add much needed dynamism and creativity.
He would prove to be a valuable asset, uses space well when out of possession, and has a good dribbling technique to free up time and space to help plot his next move.