A skilful and energetic midfielder, Matty Willock developed into a key player for Warren Joyce’s Under-21 champions last season. Now the 19-year-old has his sights set firmly on the Manchester United first team.
Signed from Arsenal in 2012, Willock is clearly highly rated by the club and was offered a new deal alongside Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Josh Harrop, and Joel Pereira in the summer of 2015. While Fosu-Mensah has established himself as a member of the first team and Joel Pereira has been selected internationally for Portugal at this summer’s Olympic Games, Willock’s opportunities have been limited. Now, just days away from turning 20, the former Arsenal trainee must take his chance and prove he is worthy of that next step.
His progression through the ranks has been steady if unspectacular. After signing for United in 2012, Willock was not quite at the level required to play for the Under-18 side in his first season.
“I grew a lot in my first year [at United]. I did play on the wing a little bit at first. It was probably felt I wasn’t strong enough to go into the middle straight away but, in my second year, I became a bit stronger so I was pushed into central midfield.” – Matty Willock on his physical development at United
After maturing physically and gaining a few inches in height, Willock broke into Paul McGuiness’ team and made the central midfield position his own. His energy and a good range of passing allowed him to control games, making key contributions from the middle of the pitch. It was in the 2013/14 season that Willock displayed his ability to work tirelessly across the pitch and he became an important player at Under-18 level.
So important, in fact, that Willock made more appearances than anyone else; featuring 29 times in total. Like many good central midfielders, much of his best work went unnoticed but his consistent level of performance was enough to alert Warren Joyce to his potential. At the end of the 2013/14 season, Willock featured for Warren Joyce’s Under-21 team as a substitute against that season’s champions Chelsea.
“Yes, it can be frustrating at times but you just have to keep going and work hard to try to push yourself into the team. I’ve played for the Under-16s, Under-17s, Under-18s and in behind-closed-door games too. It’s all been good experience.” – Matty Willock reflects on his rise through the academy
Improving all the time, Willock made the next step up, this time, more permanently to Under-21 level. Again, his progress was steady if not spectacular. Having only made his debut at the higher age group the previous season, Willock had to be patient for his opportunities. He played just eight times for the Under-21’s in 2014/15, including a substitute appearance in the Manchester Senior Cup final. More impressively, Willock scored a sensational goal against Manchester City in a 4-0 victory at Old Trafford to help secure the title. Even in his limited outings at this level, Willock showed enough quality to suggest he has a promising future in the game.
Hard work and a willingness to learn and improve have been evident throughout Willock’s fledgling career. Always looking to better his performances in the previous year, he raised his own level once again and cemented a place in the Under-21 side during the 2015/16 season. He made 16 appearances and proved to be an important player for Warren Joyce’s team as they retained their Under-21 title.
There is no doubt that Matty Willock is a talented and determined young man with the potential to have a great career in the game. He has never really grabbed the headlines at youth level, with the likes of Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Marcus Rashford, and James Weir gaining greater recognition than Willock in recent months, but that has not stopped the young midfielder impressing on the pitch whenever he’s been given the opportunity.
Alongside his talent, he has proved he has the right temperament for a career in professional sport. When observing Matty Willock’s rise through the Manchester United academy, his journey seems reminiscent of Jesse Lingard. A player who was always regarded highly by the club without really being given the opportunities at the highest level, Lingard had to wait longer than most for his opportunity right into his early twenties. With his 20th birthday rapidly approaching, it is now up to Willock to prove he is worthy of that same path. Can he make it at Manchester United? Or will he have to forge a path in the lower divisions?