Arsenal midfielder Joe Willock has paid tribute to his ‘mentor’ Freddie Ljungberg and credited the Gunners legend for his rapid progress during the past 12 months.
This time last year there were few who would have predicted that Willock would be anywhere near the Arsenal first-team, with several players seemingly well ahead of him in the pecking order.
But on Saturday he started a home game in the Premier League for the first time, playing the full 90 minutes as Unai Emery’s side backed up their opening day win at Newcastle with a 2-1 success against Burnley.
It was a special moment for the midfielder, who believes the year he spent working with Ljungberg last season while the Swede was Under-23s coach has helped him get to where he is now.
“Freddie is not only such a legend at the club, he’s an unbelievable manager and coach,” said Willock. “He’s a mentor for me, he showed me a lot behind the scenes that people don’t really know about.
“Every day I’m working with him and I’m learning from him.
“He’s improved my whole overall game. If I’m being specific, getting in the pockets when I’m playing No.10 and attacking at No.8.
“He showed me a lot of different tactics to get space and turn to attack other teams. Those are the main things really.”
Ljungberg’s return to Arsenal in the summer of 2018 coincided with Willock’s remarkable rise towards the senior side.
The 20-year-old made 13 appearances for the U23s last season under the Gunners legend, scoring seven times, and whenever he was given an opportunity with the first-team he also made an impression, finding the net three times in six games.
Willock was rewarded for his fine campaign with a start in Arsenal’s final Premier League game of last season and he followed that up with an eye-catching cameo as a substitute in the Europa League final against Chelsea.
The midfielder looked sharp throughout pre-season, scoring against Fiorentina during the tour of the United States and has now started the opening two games of the new Premier League campaign.
And with Ljungberg having joined Emery’s first-team coaching staff following a summer reshuffle which saw Steve Bould take over the U23s, he has continued to play a major part in Willock’s progress with the senior side.
“It’s nice for him to follow me up to the first-team as well,” said the England Under-21 international.
“It makes me feel more comfortable because obviously I worked with him last year. It’s a familiar face for me, it’s brilliant.”
Willock is one of three brothers who all came through Arsenal’s Hale End academy.
He is the only one still at the club, with 23-year-old Matty now at Gillingham and 21-year-old Chris on loan at West Brom from Portuguese giants Benfica.
But the trio remain inseparable, with Chris currently living next door to Joe with West Brom team-mate and former Arsenal defender Kieran Gibbs.
“They are proud of me,” said the Arsenal star. “But they always believed in me and that I could do it. They knew that I always had talent.
“I believe in them in the same way. It’s my time at the moment, but I feel that their time is coming as well.
“In football, this week you are up and next week you are down, so you just take it step by step. They keep on encouraging me.”
Willock added: “We’re really close. We grew up obviously together and have been through a lot together.
"We used to stay in the same bed, all three of us, and talk about what we wanted to do - about our dreams and aspirations and I always wanted to play for Arsenal.”
Willock is now realising that dream, but there was a time not so long ago when he began to doubt whether he would ever make the grade at his boyhood club.
Physical changes during his late teens had a big impact on his game and for a time he struggled to get to grips with them.
“I was 17,” he admits. “I was growing a lot and I lost my balance.
“But I always believed in myself. I have strong backing from my family and I always believed that I could do it and make it to the first-team.
“I’m still trying to become a regular and to play every week for the team and to win games and win trophies. I’m just trying to fulfil my dream.
“The squad we have this year is amazing and it can do big things. If I can add to that with what I can bring, it’s good and that’s all I’m looking for really.”