Danny Welbeck joins Arsenal: Miss against Bayern Munich was the day Manchester United lost faith in forward

Miss against Bayern crystallised the club’s goalscoring fears about the striker – but can Arsenal’s confidence help him change? asks Ian Herbert

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The Independent Online

It says everything about the lunatic world of transfer-deadline day that Arsenal paid out a straight £16m for Danny Welbeck because Arsène Wenger was up at 6am for an early flight and had more time than usual to have the necessary conversations.

His trusted chief scout, Steve Rowley, had watched Welbeck train for England at London Colney on the day that deal was done. But did he see the video clip which asks searching questions about Welbeck’s finishing and goes some distance to explaining his United strike rate of one goal almost every five games (29 in 142, to be precise)?

The film captures the moment, under the Old Trafford floodlights on 1 April, when Welbeck was presented by Wayne Rooney with a golden opportunity to put the ball beyond Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer and give his side a lead in the Champions League last-16 first leg.

There was an electrifying atmosphere in the stadium that night but David Moyes needed Welbeck to shut it out and recall what he and the coaching staff had identified as the faintest element of predictability in Neuer: his tendency to leap up for the ball when faced with a one-on-one. “Shoot low if you’re sent through,” Welbeck had been instructed.

Moyes held his breath in the split second that his player steadied himself. To his dismay, he saw Welbeck attempt a chip, miscuing it so horribly that Neuer’s comfortable stop was not strictly necessary.

The course of football history, and managerial careers, can rest on moments like that. If – a very big if – United had progressed past the Germans, and Europe had provided professional salvation for Moyes, we would probably still be having the same football conversation about the club’s decision to release Welbeck.

Moyes valued him but a realisation that he was not the prodigious finisher United needed lay behind his decision to look to Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani. Moyes personally scouted Cavani three times, only to go off the idea of bidding, concluding that he was not as good as Luis Suarez and over-priced at £65m.

 

Louis van Gaal has reached broadly the same conclusion about Welbeck. His assessment on Thursday that the 23-year-old is simply not United “standard” came with the added implication that the player was not willing enough to fit in with the manager’s “philosophy”, in which individuals commit themselves to the collective.

It was less than a month after the miss against Bayern that Welbeck asked to leave, frustrated by the club’s unwillingness to allocate him a regular starting place and to deploy him in the central role he craves.

In Welbeck’s defence, it was more than egoism which made him to ask to leave. A point the Napoli manager Rafael Benitez has often made in this newspaper is that strikers need, more than most, to be loved. The struggle to assert himself among United’s stars was creating the psychological uncertainties that a centre forward cannot afford to harbour.

“It’s a vicious circle when you’re not starting regularly,” says James Scowcroft, the former Ipswich Town and England Under-21 striker, who writes for the United We Stand magazine. “You don’t feel 100 per cent match fit and you’re coming on and getting stick from the crowd. You find yourself getting into the coach at 5.30 on a Saturday with all this unused energy because you’ve not played. You need to go out for a run when you get home, just to burn it off.”

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Arsène Wenger with Danny Welbeck during Arsenal training

There is a feeling among some of Roy Hodgson’s England staff that Welbeck’s bit-part role has been a highly significant factor in his development curve. The feeling at the Football Association is that England’s Liverpool players have been transformed by the consistency of their starts. In four and a half seasons, Welbeck started only 53 games for United and only once more than 20 in a single campaign.

When he did get a run in the team last Christmas, he scored five goals in six starts and there were other moments of promise: the goal from 35 yards, 21 minutes into his Premier League debut against Stoke City in the winter of 2008, and two FA Cup games against Derby County in the same season. But the tendency to over-elaborate when opportunities arrive is a well-established trend.

The details of Welbeck’s games and goals in the book Fergie’s Fledglings, by United writer and historian Wayne Barton, reveal that even in youth football he was not prolific. Barton, who has watched Welbeck develop through the youth ranks, is sad to see him leave but feels that over-elaboration was always there. “Some players never grow out of it,” Barton says.

Welbeck’s work-rate in a supporting role is the indisputable element. In the Champions League tie at Real Madrid last year, he was man-of-the-match, starting because of his energy, doubling as an offensive threat and an anchor on Xabi Alonso. He scored, but also missed a good chance.   

The same doubled-edged game was evident in Basel for England against Switzerland on Monday night.

When Welbeck had scored, slightly fortuitously, with his shin, he was confident enough to double his tally. But in the first half, after dispossessing Steve von Bergen and racing down the Swiss right flank with that powerful direct running and upper-body strength of his, he put in an anaemic ball out of Raheem Sterling’s reach. The opportunity was simply crying out for a thumping finish.

That need for someone to believe in Welbeck was manifest in the way he battered Arsenal’s door down on deadline day, returning to Colney when England training had concluded. He pressed them to buy him, rather than find himself tied to the continued uncertainty of a loan deal.

He hated the idea of Sunderland or Hull City – hoping, until the 11th hour, for a real expression of faith in him from one of the best clubs in the land. For Wenger to have put £16m on the table affirms Welbeck’s own belief that he is an elite centre forward. Whether goals will start to flow from that remains to be seen.

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