196 days between competitive wins for Newcastle United. To say much has changed between three points at Craven Cottage and Saturday’s Burnley triumph, undercooks somewhat. But blue as that leaves it, no-one reading this needs recent history lessons.

For the most part, change should be positive. Forward looking, development, a quest for something better. Not necessarily instant gratification, but at least a slow build, plus the odd signal of intent.

Which brings us to Joe Willock, whose last strike came Newcastle’s latest-but-one victory.

It wasn’t really a ‘will he, won’t he’ saga, simply because few believed he would. Why would a young-upstart -in football terms privately schooled – leave the comfort of Arsenal for, well, you know what?

Mikel Arteta supposedly toyed with retaining Willock. A north-east return seemed unlikely. Then in mid-August, United announced his capture. If the reported £25 million fee is accurate, Willock became Newcastle’s second most expensive signing.

It was billed by friends of the then-hierarchy as a statement of intent; ‘Look at us…we are going places.’ In reality, it simply maintained the status quo.

No issues with that mind; Willock’s seven-game scoring streak helped United end last season in style. Well, these things a relative; let’s settle on comfort. Four wins, two draws and just one defeat (he missed the loss to parent club Arsenal for obvious reasons). The boy, it seemed, could play.

Few seriously expected a similar impact.  Streaks are part of football. Rarely are they maintained. Of Yoan Gouffran’s 16 league goals (128 appearances), five came in consecutive SJP fixtures.  And who can forget Papiss Cissé; fair to say he hit the ground sprinting. Everything he touched turn to goals, 13 of them in his first dozen. Then 24 in his next 115 Premier League outings.

So, has goal-less Willock been that bad?

Now, there are two ways of doing this. The first? The new-fangled spreadsheet route. Lock the bedroom door and pore over the numbers, not a blade of grass even in the peripheral. That seems to be the modern trend, so let’s begin there.

Well, conveniently, Willock has 11 starts this season – the same as last – with roughly equivalent minutes (978 versus 911). The stark difference comes in goals; zero versus eight.  But here enters the mitigation.  Whereas in 20/21 he operated largely on the right of a midfield three, with licence to roam – and indeed some games essentially free-hits – he has been deployed more defensively this time. Perhaps then our millennial friend xG will help? Last season he more than doubled it (xg 3.6) whereas this year it is just 0.8. So, it’s not that he is missing opportunities.

What else is there? Well despite his more defensive role, Willock has won slightly fewer tackles. That said, he is United’s joint top-tackler (22) along with Sean Longstaff. He has also been more difficult to dribble past, with only 50% of those trying to navigate him doing so successfully. He is pressing less (a third drop off) – albeit with a similar success rate – but again allowance has to be made for his role.

Likewise, the fact that he’s had less than half the number of touches in the opposition box, and that his completed dribbles (22 to 10) are down. There has though, been a notable drop off in his dribbling success rate (64.7% to 33.3%); a lack of confidence or just less space more centrally?

In possession, Willock improved, successfully receiving 81% of passes as opposed to 66.6% last year. Promising, although likely inflated by short passes received from centre backs.

Perhaps better then to rank Willock against his peers? His pass completion rate (79.9%) falls below both Longstaff (81.4%) and Isaac Hayden (80.1%). Only Shelvey (77.2%) is worse of the regular midfield starters. But then Jonjo has pinged 42 balls more than 40-yards, Willock just 7.  Jeff Hendrick’s 88.5% is discarded for two reasons; (i) he has attempted just 26, and (ii) he is Jeff Hendrick.

By way of comparison, the likes of Villa’s Marvelous Nakamba, Palace’s Cheik Kouyaté and Brighton’s Yves Bissouma are all operating above 85%, the latter touching 90%. Room for improvement all-round then.

The second way of looking at it? Make no mistake, statistics can be supremely useful metric but football is a sensory sport. Using only numbers, in lieu of more old-fashioned methods, leaves way too big a gap.  What can you feel? What can you see, hear, taste even?  That cannot be derived in formulae.

And it’s all pretty bland when it comes to Willock. It is obvious he is struggling for something. Devoid of confidence, he lacks that edge, the snap of the finger sharpness that, when on-song, he has. But then the same is true for so many in black and white. And in place of the dark-grey void there are signs of recovery.

How does Willock find that, where does he go? nowhere for a long, long time. Taking him out of the firing line temporarily could certainly be useful. Some match-goers have been calling for Hayden’s return. It’s a curious football fan trait how a player grows in stature when out-of-the-side!

Willock is also a relative bairn at 22. He has made just 34 top-flight starts, all but a dozen of them for Newcastle. What he does need is Howe’s arm around his should. And a position too. The danger of the utility midfielder is they grapple around never quite finding their identity. Find that and you have yourself a player.

SAM DALLING