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If Danny Welbeck’s move to Arsenal was accompanied by any remaining doubt over where his best position is, he answered the questions emphatically on international duty this week. Sitting beside Roy Hodgson in a press conference before England flew out to Switzerland for their first Euro 2016 qualifier, Welbeck announced “I prefer to play as a centre-forward”. “It’s up to the manager, I don’t pick the team” he said, I can’t say I want to play here or there.”
It was a message the resonated with the England manager who, with Daniel Sturridge injured, shifted to a diamond formation with Welbeck in attack with his former Manchester United team-mate Wayne Rooney. The result was an ultimately satisfying victory for England, Hodgson’s faith being repaid by the 23 year old with 2 goals and an energetic performance in leading the line.
The goals in St Jakob Park took Welbeck’s England scoring record to 10 from 19 starts, a good return for any striker who faces criticism for his lack of goals. That has come from his time with Manchester United where he recorded 29 goals from 142 matches, admittedly from his usual station on the wing with chances in the centre being starved by the presence of Robin Van Persie and Javier Hernandez as well as Rooney.
United’s deadline day signing of Radamel Falcao saw Welbeck edged out of Old Trafford and to Arsenal for £16 million, a new opportunity to realise the ability many have never been entirely convinced by.
A failure to pick out Raheem Sterling with a first-half cutback out in Switzerland prevented Arsenal fans from getting too carried away with Welbeck’s 2 goals on Monday night, his play in the final third often being undermined by a poor final ball or an overriding anxiety in front of goal.
It has created a perception that the striker’s main attributes are more physical than technical, going a good way to explaining why Welbeck has not been played “a bit further up the pitch”, as he put it, coaches preferring instead to utilise his strength and pace on the flank. However there is plenty in the 23 year old’s game to explain why Arsene Wenger was willing to part with such money and hand the attacker a 5 year deal.
The injury to Olivier Giroud, which has ruled the Frenchman out until January, sparked Wenger into the last-minute transfer action and Welbeck’s superior movement and pace would have appealed to the manager who only has one other out-and-out striker at his disposal, Yaya Sanogo who is yet to score for Arsenal despite joining last summer.
Welbeck, dangerous when running in behind defences in contrast to Giroud’s tendency to link play with his back to goal, will provide an able and pacey alternative together with Alexis Sanchez, while Theo Walcott also waits to return from a long-term ligament injury. Wenger’s options in attack suddenly look in rude health.
Versatility would have also been high on the checklist with Sanchez and Walcott both able to play wide as well as through the middle. Welbeck’s energy and diligence on both flanks will provide Wenger with even more choices, and will further limit Lukas Podolski’s chances on the left side with the manager harbouring a reluctance to play the German through the middle. Podolski’s lack of willingness to track back, as well as that as fellow country-man Mesut Ozil, when on the wing will be solved by Welbeck who also offers discipline in abundance.
Furthermore, he is likely to be afforded more time and patience by Arsenal as Wenger continues to cultivate the settled environment aiming for success in the longer-term. Manchester United, with Louis Van Gaal swept in to restore the club to the lucrative lands of the Champions League and a late dash to flex their financial muscle as the transfer window wound down which suggested their desperation, could no longer hold room for a striker with such a measly goal record.
Two Old Trafford greats in Bryan Robson and David Beckham have both spoken against the decision to move Welbeck on, while Mike Phelan, who coached Welbeck during his time as Sir Alex Ferguson’s erstwhile assistant, claimed the sale of the striker, born within 3 miles of the stadium in Salford, had broken the club’s identity.
Falcao, who entertained a move to Real Madrid before settling on United and the monstrous wage they offered, could be described as a mercenary, but he is one that possesses the predatory instinct that Welbeck has repeatedly failed to show.
Faced with a mandate to urgently restore United to the Premier League’s elite, it is goals and a proven track record that will matter to Van Gaal, not potential or promise. In Angel Di Maria, signed for a British record £59.7 million from Real Madrid, as well as Falcao, United now have two upgrades on Welbeck and, with dissatisfaction aired towards the end of last-season with a decrease in playing time, there was no longer room for him to progress with the club.
It was then, reacting to Van Gaal’s impending takeover in the summer, where Welbeck first clamoured for a move to a central position. “I’d like to play centrally,” he said. “I’ve been playing on the left for a while and it’s got to the time when I want to stake a place up front.”
After showing what he could do for Hodgson’s England there out in Switzerland, Arsenal may have acquired themselves a very shrewd buy.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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