It is now more than six months since Joe Willock last scored for Newcastle United in a run which saw him equal a Premier League record set by Alan Shearer.

The Arsenal loanee proved a revelation as Steve Bruce's side recovered from an abysmal mid-season run of form to secure an unlikely 12th-placed finish.

Months of speculation passed before Newcastle finally landed their 'primary target', breaking their self-imposed rules to broker a deal with installments in excess of £20m.

Willock received a rapturious reception at his unveiling ahead of the opening-day home defeat to West Ham, but the midfielder's homecoming has begun in muted fashion.

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No-one expected the 22-year-old to continue the remarkable scoring run which led to him becoming the youngest player to ever score in seven consecutive Premier League fixtures.

However, mitigating factors must be considered when it comes to assessing Willock's season so far. The Gunners academy graduate arrived on Tyneside having hardly featured in pre-season, and played through the pain barrier in the opening weeks of the season with injections for a toe complaint.

Willock then picked up a hip injury in defeat at Wolves in October, and was relegated to a bench role under interim boss Graeme Jones.

Eddie Howe has restored the summer signing into the starting eleven, but it is in a different deeper-lying role in a midfield two alongside Jonjo Shelvey.

Willock's success last season emerged from a system which evidently played to his strengths. Freed of defensive responsibilities, the loanee was allowed to roam as a 'number eight' and consistently arrived in the box at the right time.

Statistics from Sofa Score reflect this recent shift in approach which has led to the club's 'priority target' making more of a subdued start to the season than perhaps many expected.

During his loan spell, Willock was scoring once every 158 minutes despite averaging just 1.1 shots per match. The stats site indicates the midfielder was clinical with his finishing, having only spurned two 'big chances'.

In 12 appearances to date in the current campaign, Willock's shooting stats have already dropped to just 0.7 per match. The former loanee also has not been adjudged to have missed any 'big chances' either, proving the midfielder has not wasted opportunities but is simply operating in different areas of the pitch.

Joe Willock's heat map for last season
Joe Willock's heat map for last season

This is stood up by the respective heat maps for the two campaigns. Willock's map for his loan spell shows a larger concentration of activity towards the right flank, and a noticeable cluster on the penalty spot.

In contrast, much of Willock's actions on the current map have been recorded in his own half and close to the centre circle. The midfielder has been active on the left flank, but the most striking absence is the lack of a presence in the box.

Despite so far failing to register a goal or an assist since signing permanently, Willock has actually played a greater role in possession than he had previously.

Joe Willock's heat map for the 2021/22 season so far
Joe Willock's heat map for the 2021/22 season so far

The 22-year-old is taking an average of 33.4 touches per match (in contrast to 29.3 last time out) and registering almost four more passes per game.

The ramifications of this deeper role are illustrated further by the midfielder's defensive figures, which show a marked jump in tackles made per match (rising from 1.5 to 2.7).

Newcastle fans are ironically seeing more of Willock in and even out of possession, but diminished returns when it comes to the statistics which he will inevitably be judged upon by fans and pundits alike.

The Howe era remains in its infancy, and the former Bournemouth boss could make further changes to the 3-4-3 and 4-4-2 formations he has so far adopted.

But as it stands, a return to the system which brought Bruce's side initial success before yielding little this season seems unlikely anytime soon.

This creates something of a conundrum when it comes to getting the best out of Willock, who continues to get the nod over Isaac Hayden, Jeff Hendrick and Sean Longstaff in the engine room.

Joe Willock of Newcastle United battles for possession with Vitaly Janelt of Brentford
Joe Willock in action against Brentford

Former boss Mikel Arteta previously insisted Willock's best position was as a number 10, but this is another role that has so far not been adopted under Howe. Even if it was to become an option, the-summer signing would face competition from Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin for the starting spot.

Goals are currently not the issue for this Newcastle side, meaning any concerns over Willock will likely not be at the forefront of Howe's thinking with January in mind.

Newcastle's current precarious predicament necessitates an immediate focus on results and securing that vital first victory of the season.

But once Howe settles at the club and is allowed a moment to plan for the long term, the question of finding a way to allow Willock to offensively flourish as he did last season must be towards the top of his to-do list.

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