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Can Matty Willock’s loan spell give him the hunger to push on at Manchester United?

At the end of the 2016/17 season, in the final Premier League match at Old Trafford, which was a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace, Matty Willock nearly made his debut in the final minutes of the match. The 20-year-old, at the time, was readied by Jose Mourinho after warming up and was seemingly set to make his first senior appearance for the club at the Theatre of Dreams. That was ended moments later when 17-year-old Angel Gomes replaced Wayne Rooney in the 88th minute of the match instead.

In that match, eight United Academy graduates started the game, one more coming off the bench. It is expected that Mourinho will do something similar this season, with the final home match of the season, played on the final day of the season, being against Watford, a club who are not in the relegation zone and not in contention for a European place, so nothing is at stake for them. Willock, despite not making his first team appearance, was not disheartened. At the start of this season, he was loaned to Netherlands side Utrecht, to play in the Eredivisie.

It was not meant to be. His loan spell was terminated by United at the end of January 2018 with the club finding a new challenge for him for the remainder of the season, heading north to Scotland to play for Scottish Premiership side, St Johnstone. In the Netherlands, despite challenging to play first team football, Willock only made three appearances for Utrecht, amassing just 19 minutes on the pitch. He did, however, play 506 minutes for the Jong FC Utrecht side in the Earste Divisie, the equivalent of the Premier League 2 in the Netherlands.

Since making the move to Scotland, Willock has made a total of nine appearances for St Johnstone, playing a total of 475 minutes of football so far. Eight of those appearances were in the Scottish Premiership, one in the Scottish Cup. Willock has scored one goal, a consolation in a 4-1 defeat to Aberdeen on the 31st March 2018. It shows the spell in Scotland has been much better than the one in the Netherlands, although he did get to play football, despite it being at the same level as he could have played at United but there will be the added experience of continental football.

Willock may not be in a position to challenge for a place in United’s first team next season and despite being 21 now, there is still time for him to earn his dream of playing for Manchester United. Willock is a midfielder. He can play central midfield, central defensive midfield or even as a right midfielder. The player signed a new two-year contract ahead of his move to Utrecht at the start of the current season, meaning he will be in the last year of that contract when he returns to the club in the summer.

With it being a FIFA World Cup year, Jose Mourinho, thinking about his squad for the clubs pre-season tour of the United States of America, may choose to utilise youth in the early matches, which will be played against Club America and San Jose Earthquakes, with many of his stars playing for their respective countries in Russia, therefore possible missing the start of the pre-season tour. Willock could be granted an opportunity to play for United, possible earn his place in the squad or most likely, another loan spell away from the Old Trafford club.

Willock has two brothers Chris Willock and Joe Willock. The former moved to Benfica in the summer with the latter making his Arsenal debut in the past few weeks. As a child, Willock idolised Paul Scholes, Patrick Vieira, and Kaka and he probably saw himself emulating them but so far, despite being on the right road, still has a long way to go. The player has been at United since July 2012, coming from Arsenal, where both of his brothers played too. He was not ready for U18 football when he signed, enduring a growth spurt, which put him into contention.

During the 2013/14 season, when Willock made his U18 debut, he played a total of 30 matches at that level, scoring one goal, assisting two others. He also made one substitute appearances for each of the U19 squad in the UEFA Youth League and the U21 squad. The following season, Willock played U21 football, making one start, seven substitute appearances, scoring one goal. That was it for that season. In the 2015/16 season, Willock played three times for the U19’s, and 16 times for the U21’s, scoring twice and assisting twice.

During the 2016/17 season, the first for Jose Mourinho at senior level, Willock solely played for the U23’s. He made 26 appearances, 25 of them starts, scoring twice and assisting once. It was his form at this level which saw Mourinho notice him, not only for the final home game of the season but to train with the first team on occasion also. To say that Mourinho distrusts youth is a massive myth. This current season, before being loaned to Utrecht, Willock made two appearances at U23 level.

It all looks a bit too soon for Willock to contend for a first team place. It all depends on how he has developed. In the summer, he may find himself training with the first team, possibly travelling to the USA in pre-season. However, I do feel that other players will be ahead of him, Scott McTominay especially. Ethan Hamilton is also a player that has caught Mourinho’s eye. This summer the Portuguese is expected to bring in two new midfielders to replace Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini. Youth may get a chance, but experience is needed first and foremost.

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