Newcastle United hope to finalise personal terms with Joe Willock this week, but the Magpies’ breakthrough in talks with Arsenal has already sent an important message to the dressing room.
ChronicleLive understands there has been a ‘buzz’ around the training ground after it emerged that Newcastle had agreed a fee with Arsenal for the midfielder as the Magpies close in on their first signing of the summer.
It would, perhaps, have been easier for Newcastle to settle for another loan deal but, crucially, the black-and-whites have stumped up the cash to try and sign their number one target on a permanent basis.
It is easy to see why Newcastle are prepared to make Willock the club’s second most expensive signing ever. Indeed, without some of Willock’s goals last season, Newcastle would have claimed eight fewer points in games against Southampton, Spurs, West Ham, Liverpool and Sheffield United.
While Newcastle still would have stayed up regardless – that is hardly an achievement by the way – Bruce’s side would have finished in 17th place rather than 12th.
Of course, it would be unfair to expect Willock to maintain such a hot streak, after the Londoner became the youngest player in Premier League history to score in seven consecutive games last season, and it is worth noting his other important qualities.
Following Newcastle’s humiliating defeat at Norwich nearly two years ago, Bruce realised that the Magpies did not necessarily have the tools to play the way he wanted.
Aside from Isaac Hayden, Bruce felt that Newcastle did not have enough legs in midfield to be a little bit more open.
That wait to sign a box to box midfielder took time – a move for Lille star Boubakary Soumare failed in January, 2020 – before Bruce finally got the profile of player he wanted in Willock earlier this year.
Willock’s goals naturally grabbed the headlines during his loan spell last season but the 21-year-old’s ability to carry the ball forward and take Newcastle up the pitch quickly from deeper positions was also significant.
According to Wyscout, a tool Newcastle analysts use, Willock made 28 progressive runs with the ball during his brief spell on Tyneside.
To put that total into perspective, during the whole of last season, in all competitions, Jonjo Shelvey completed 19 progressive runs; Sean Longstaff made 14 of these bursts forward; Jeff Hendrick took the ball up the field a dozen times; and Isaac Hayden made nine carries.
Willock does something different to Newcastle’s other midfielders and if the Magpies manage to agree personal terms, and the player passes a medical, bringing the 21-year-old back would at least be a start in keeping the squad which finished last season so strongly together.
However, while a sizeable outlay, it is crucial that Newcastle do not stop there and, instead, look to strengthen that group in the final weeks of the window.
Bruce remains quietly confident that at least one more quality addition could follow Willock through the door before the window closes and it is important to note that Newcastle still have two domestic loan slots to play with.
As Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Spurs complete further transfers in the coming weeks, expect Newcastle to be near the front of the queue when these clubs trim their squads and allow players to finally go out on loan.
Bruce still wants to bring in another central midfielder and maybe even an athletic centre-back, too.
The Magpies may already have five central defenders battling it out for three starting spots but Bruce has been keen on signing a quick centre-back who is comfortable on the ball and able to push up to allow his side to potentially play a slightly higher defensive line.
Bruce’s decision to let the impressive Kell Watts go out on loan to Wigan may yet prove significant although it is worth stressing that Emil Krafth can also fill in at centre-back, too.
The Newcastle head coach was interested in Axel Tuanzebe and the Manchester United defender’s camp considered the Magpies to be the frontrunners for his signature as recently as a couple of weeks ago.
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However, ChronicleLive understands Tuanzebe ultimately chose to return to Aston Villa because it was the club the player and his family ‘preferred’ despite previously being ‘delighted’ by Newcastle’s interest.
When it comes to other potential options, it is worth remembering that Newcastle attempted to sign Rob Holding on a temporary basis last summer but, as it stands, ChronicleLive understands the player’s camp believe it is ‘extremely unlikely’ that the defender will go out on loan a year on.