Tough to let Willock go – Arteta praise for Newcastle’s loan ranger

Joe Willock celebrates at Anfield

Joe Willock celebrates at Anfield

Mikel Arteta insists Arsenal thought long and hard about sending Joe Willock out for his fruitful loan stint at Newcastle United.

Willock is ineligible to face his parent club when Newcastle host the Gunners at St James’ Park on Sunday.

That in itself surely stands as a boost to Arteta, given Willock has come off the bench to score in each of Newcastle’s past three Premier League games – strikes worth a total of four points to Steve Bruce’s team, who are now nine points clear of the relegation zone with five matches remaining.

Willock is the first player to score on three consecutive substitute appearances in England’s top flight since Adam Le Fondre did so for Reading in 2013.

Although his development is a boon to Arteta and others in north London, it is also possible to wonder what a player in such form might have done for an Arsenal side that have won just two of their past nine matches following Thursday’s 2-1 Europa League semi-final first leg defeat at Villarreal.

“It was a difficult decision to let him go because we really like the player,” Arteta said.

“But he needed more game-time and needed this type of experience.

“He has stepped in at big moments for them and scored some crucial goals so that is really good news because it is great for his development.”

Nicolas Pepe might well have scored a crucial goal when it comes to salvaging something from Arsenal’s season, having netted to reduce the arrears at El Madrigal from the penalty spot, despite Dani Ceballos being sent off before the hour.

It has been another mixed campaign overall for Arsenal’s record signing  but Pepe has netted six times in 12 Europa League appearances, alongside five in 25 Premier League outings.

“I think he’s come a long way in the last few months. His work ethic has been phenomenal and he’s deciding many more games and doing what he can do in the final third in a much more consistent way,” Arteta said,

“So I’m really happy with his performances and now he needs to continue like this.

“Confidence in every player is crucial and every time you step on that field, if they feel secure, if they feel protected, if they feel like they’re supported by their manager and their team-mates, it’s something that is crucial to be able to perform.

“Then with the things that he could do better, he’s doing much better with as well. But it’s all a mix that is reflected in his performance.”

Arsenal’s goal threat would be further enhanced by having Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back to full fitness.

The club captain returned to training this week following a bout of malaria and featured as a late substitute against Villarreal.

“He hasn’t trained much, he is still not at the level in his physique that he should be to start,” Arteta said, hinting a place on the bench is again most likely for Aubameyang at Newcastle.

“We will see again how he is. He could only play a few minutes but we managed to get him on the pitch, which is great news for us.”

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