Guest Author: Doron
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Lots of players leave Manchester United but few departures have carried as much disbelief as that of Danny Welbeck. The disbelief stems not because it was an expensive fee (if anything, the fee was lower than that which could have been expected) and neither was it a total surprise, given the stories emanating from Old Trafford in recent weeks. Instead, it is because, to many, the transfer just seems wrong: a local lad, aged 23, who has been with the club for fifteen years and has arguably the biggest cult fan base of the current squad was sold to Arsenal, the primary rival to which a player could feasibly be sold. Yet, from the player’s perspective, this is a pivotal career moment. Having left United incomplete, the transfer presents an opportunity to allow him to fulfil his potential and become a leading Premier League striker.
It was debatable as to whether anything further needed to be said about Danny; United fans have penned their blogs of love whilst Arsenal fans are, typically,
awful giddy. Meanwhile, the media appear to have finally opened their eyes to him (*cough* London press *cough*) and, in the main, have been critical of United for jettisoning their home-grown forward in favour of Radamel Falcao (an irony, after twelve months of criticism that United lack quality). However, whilst plenty has been said, there is a lot still to reflect on with regard to Welbeck’s time at United and why his departure was the result of a perfect storm that may not have occurred at any other point in the last twenty years.
United’s Academy, famed and scrutinised for a number of reasons, has provided a high number of players to the first team since Sir Alex Ferguson restructured the club upon his arrival in 1986. However, during this period it has failed to provide the first team with either a regular goalkeeper or striker; Welbeck is the closest to have broken this trend, however, it would be disingenuous to state he played as a regular striker, given he was often selected out of position.
The explanation for this is straight forward; there are fewer positions available for strikers and goalkeepers to get an opportunity, whereas typically in defence and midfield a player can be flexible just to get minutes (examples being Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher). The importance of the goalkeeping and striking positions at a club like United also ensure that they cannot afford to take risks and therefore young keepers or strikers from the academy have had little exposure to the first team over the last quarter of a century.
Since Mark Hughes’ breakthrough in the early 1980s, Danny Welbeck is the only United-produced forward to make more than 100 appearances and, even then, only 90 of these were starts*. Hughes, although never truly prolific (the definitive ‘scorer of great goals’), was always an important contributor and scored more than 15 goals in seven of the nine seasons that he was a first team regular at United (scoring 12 and 14 in the other two). Welbeck’s departure means that the challenge to find a home-grown goalscorer goes on; with James Wilson now fourth choice, it is reasonable to expect that the baton will at least be passed on relatively quickly on this occasion.
*for further perspective, after Welbeck, Mark Robins, with 70 appearances (27 starts) is second in the list of appearances for strikers to make it from academy to first team, and Federico Macheda third, with 36 appearances (15 starts).
As touched upon, one of the difficulties for a player like Welbeck in becoming a regular striker at a club like United, is the forwards he competes with. The need to keep goals out (goalkeeper) and score them (strikers) is not something that can really be gambled with at a club the size of United. Failure to do one of those two things correctly can lead to disaster and cannot be gambled with. It’s why David De Gea was signed to replace van der Sar, why van Persie was signed and, ultimately, why Falcao was brought in this summer. This situation is not unique to United; how many goalkeepers or central strikers from their own academy are currently in the squads of Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Spurs? Prior to his transfer, Welbeck was in a club of one for the strikers and Szczesny in a similar position for the goalkeepers.
What all of the above does confirm is that the argument United have abandoned their tradition by replacing Welbeck with Falcao flies in the face of everything that has been witnessed during the trophy-laden quarter of a century of Ferguson’s rule.
‘He doesn’t score enough goals’
It appears that the main reason for Welbeck seeking to leave Old Trafford, is the desire to become recognised as a goal-scoring, central striker. It is difficult not to reflect and assume that he wasn’t stung by the constant criticism of him for not scoring enough goals, ironically by the same pundits now criticising United for selling him. The argument that Welbeck simply hasn’t scored enough goals to date is fair, because it’s true, however, he will argue that his opportunities to play as a central striker have been limited and this too, is fair.
The sole campaign for United in which he played regularly though the middle came three years ago, when, aged 20 turning 21, and still filling out, he was neither prolific nor the finished product. Despite this, his potential was clear; a quick, powerful player with good technique and work-rate, the major concern was with regard to his composure in front of goal and this was an area where progress could reasonably be expected to be made.
From Academy to the First Team
Welbeck’s potential had, in fact, been clear years before. His card had been marked publicly by Alex Ferguson in the 2007/08 season when he played in a mid-season friendly in Saudi Arabia for Sami Al-Jaber’s testimonial. As a 65th minute substitute, Welbeck came on, won a penalty and then put said penalty, over the bar; sadly, in hindsight, this would encapsulate his career at the club. He continued as an unused member of the first team squad that season, aged 17, and was present in full club regalia at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, as United lifted the European Cup for the third time.
His youth career had been a bit of a whirlwind; an Academy debut whilst an U15; a regular whilst an U16; a fruitful partnership with Macheda in his first full year as an U18 and then, after one substitute appearance, he left the Academy behind in what should have been his second proper season at that level. All this was accomplished whilst becoming somewhat ungainly due to a combination of growth spurts and, less so, Osgood-Schlatter disease, from which he suffered. His time in the Reserves is somewhat nondescript because, like Macheda, he was fast-tracked into the first team squad.
Shortly after his 19th birthday he had a taste of loan action at Preston North End, although the move was cut short due to the need for knee surgery. Following this was a more successful loan spell at Sunderland for the 2010-2011 season. Although he only scored 6 goals in 28 appearances, his form was good and impressive enough for Welbeck to be promoted as a first team regular at United for the 2011-2012 season at United which, coming full circle, was his only season as a regular striker for United.
The summer of 2012 saw the arrival of van Persie and resulted in reduced chances for Welbeck in his preferred position, given United’s tendency to play Van Persie as a lone central striker with Wayne Rooney or Shinji Kagawa behind. In hindsight, it can be assumed that, had Ferguson stayed on, Rooney would have departed in the summer of 2013 and that chances for Welbeck may have increased again considering the fitness record of Van Persie. Ferguson’s decision to retire was, of course, a significant factor in the perfect storm that resulted in Welbeck’s departure.
2012/2013 – Rough Edges
The 2012/13 campaign saw the best and worst of Welbeck. United’s Academy is good at producing well-rounded footballers. Part of their education is about strengthening areas of their game that aren’t necessarily vital for their position but can help their versatility and appreciate the roles of those around them. Recent examples include Larnell Cole at right back instead of midfield and Tom Thorpe as a holding midfielder instead of at the heart of the defence. Welbeck graduated with a game suited to a variety of roles and the right attitude to accompany this approach; wherever he was picked to play he would do so without complaint.
As such, in 2012/13 he performed primarily in three roles for United – as a striker, on the wing or as a tactically disciplined deep forward, most notably when man-marking Xabi Alonso against Real Madrid in the Champions League. Playing him on the wing particularly appealed to Ferguson as he knew that Welbeck was as hard-working as any footballer in the league and that his strong athleticism and technique ensured he could carry the ball forwards, beat players and retain possession. The combination of skill and intellect enabled him to mix moments of trickery with the understanding of where his role required him to be.
Unfortunately, time out wide resulted in less time in front of goal and the existing issue with regard to a lack of composure became even more profound. Opportunities to score were met with a rushed panic and although Ferguson never used that as a stick to beat him with, at least not publicly, criticism from other quarters that Welbeck was wasteful in front of goal was beginning to grow. A popular jibe by his doubters, and there were plenty amongst United fans, was to dub him “Bambi on ice”. The lack of goals resulted in criticism from fans and pundits, but was an ignorant position to take, when his role during that season was more akin to Ji-Sung Park than Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Yes, he should have scored more but he still made an immensely positive contribution to United’s championship winning team.
The campaign finished with a league winner’s medal but more goals for country than club. Rather than starting to show signs of developing into a strong centre forward, Welbeck had, almost in spite of himself, become a jack-of-all-trades in the other forward positions.
Beginning of the end
Under Ferguson, there had been few signs that Welbeck had let the lack of goals get to him. Then Ferguson left and David Moyes’ omnishambles began.
Initially, things looked bright. Two goals on the opening day of the 2013/14 season and a short run of games as a striker in a 4-4-2 seemed promising. However, Moyes and his uninspiring brand of football soon reverted to type. Welbeck, if used at all, had to make do as a left winger with his manager, not inclined to take risks and upset star players, sticking with van Persie and Rooney unless either was completely unavailable due to injury.
It’s a damning indictment of Moyes and his caution that as soon as van Persie returned from an injury at the end of January, Welbeck was dropped, despite having scored 6 goals in 7 league games as a striker during the Dutchman’s absence. This run included a performance at Norwich that completely changed the game for United when he came on as a half time substitute and scored the only goal in a 1-0 win. This performance was the biggest indication yet that Welbeck could make a meaningful contribution as a striker at United, however it meant nothing in the eyes of his manager.
It was around this time that the first indications leaked out of Old Trafford that Welbeck was considering his future at the club. His relationship with Moyes was a strained one and they clashed over training methods as well as Welbeck’s position in the side. Instead of praising his young striker for the run of goals in December, Moyes declared he wanted more, something the player possibly took to heart.
By the time the season finished, the player seemed at a loss with his role and was only too quick to point out that he had more freedom for England than United. Although Moyes had departed the club by this point, the damage to Welbeck’s career at the club had been done and the seed of discontent at his position had been sown.
From the outside, looking in, Welbeck should have been the perfect van Gaal player – a pacey, tactically aware hard worker. Van Gaal, however, has to undo all that went awry last season and has to do this almost immediately, with no time to be afforded to sentiment or potential given the financial implications if United continue to miss out on Champions League football. His job therefore starts with winning games and by him forging a side that remembers how to score goals.
Regardless of where Welbeck has played in the past, Van Gaal is right that he has not scored enough goals. It may be a brutal assessment but this season United need goalscorers and Welbeck is not a proven one yet. As such, rightly or wrongly, he would be down the pecking order as a central striker if he had stayed this season. Welbeck’s apparent conviction that he only wanted to be seen as a striker was therefore the key reason for his eventual departure as van Gaal understandably would have chosen both Rooney or van Persie ahead of him in this position.
Despite this, United did not actively seek to offload Welbeck, as they did with countless other squad members this summer. Instead, the player had made his mind up that he needed to move on which is understandable but also extremely frustrating as there’s nothing to suggest that long-term he couldn’t have become a very good United player, particularly with Rooney, van Persie and now Falcao all over the age of 28.
That he has ended up at Arsenal is galling, not just because of the emotional attachment to him but because he gives their rabid fans more ammunition. For the first time in almost a decade, Arsenal finished above United and his transfer adds to their latest shtick; from Invincibles to ‘we don’t buy superstars, we make them’ to ‘The Net Spenders’ to ‘The British Boys’ today. In addition, the fact that the deal very nearly didn’t happen (it was only ‘on’ at 10pm on deadline day as Arsenal took an age to turn a loan offer into a permanent deal and another London club nearly closed out a move for him) frustrates as does the fact that they were desperate for a striker and blocked the transfer of Thomas Vermaelen to United earlier in the summer (although, in many respects, that was a kindness).
Welbeck will of course be nothing but a success at Arsenal. Their already pacey front line just got even quicker and, for as long as Giroud is injured (or rubbish), he should be deployed as their primary striker, something he has clearly craved. Expect further revisionism about him in the press (if that’s possible) and expect lavish praise from Arsenal fans. Of course, if anyone is remotely surprised by him they’ve either not watched him the last few years or simply not watched him closely enough to appreciate his technical quality and work-rate.
For Welbeck, this move offers an opportunity to define himself as the goalscorer that he wants to be seen as. He has left United years short of his peak and with his reputation not fully fleshed. Such has been the nature of his role and style that there is uncertainty as to whether he will ever become a great striker or whether he is, instead, a very good, versatile forward.
This next phase in his career is about bringing together all that has been good about him in the past and moulding that into a player with a greater end product, whose flaws are scarce and whose role is obvious. In another time, with less chaos at United, he would undoubtedly had the chance to fulfil his potential at Old Trafford. Some things are just not meant to be.
Many thanks, again, to @KarateJesus82 for helping to edit this!