The finish was calm, the celebration familiar, as local-boy-done-good Danny Welbeck wheeled away having smashed home Manchester United’s winner at the Emirates on Sunday. The strike was yet another on an increasingly upward trajectory in the 21-year-old’s career. Gone are the legitimate doubts about whether Welbeck is ‘United’ quality. Indeed, fitness permitting, Welbeck is now Sir Alex Ferguson’s first choice to lead United’s front-line.
Welbeck’s development has accelerated faster than almost anybody, Ferguson aside, could have predicted. The Scot has always believed; the fans had many doubts. But gone is the gangly striker, with the suspect first touch, that Ferguson used to deploy on the wing. Now, the Longsight-born youngster is a complete forward in his own right.
Welbeck’s pace, movement, and the ability to finish mark the nine goal striker out as, potentially, a genuine star turn. Whether that comes this season or later, there is nobody quite like Welbeck in the United squad.
“I think Danny’s brilliant, and it’s fantastic for his confidence that he’s starting so many big games,” says former United striker Andy Cole, who scored 121 goals in 275 games for the club.
“Javier Hernández has been injured and has been finding it tough to repeat what he did in his first season. Sometimes your second season is your toughest, I went through that myself. Danny has come in and grabbed his chance with both hands and he’s playing very well. He’s playing with confidence and getting goals too.
“You might say I was a bit of an old-fashioned centre forward when I played, in that I always wanted to try and run in behind defenders and get chances that way. To see Danny doing that is great. He can play in front of defenders as well, but when he runs in behind them he causes a lot of problems.”
That Welbeck has his nine goals from just 16 starts this season, and another six appearances from the bench, says much for the rapidly increasing strike rate too. After all, the forward had ability, but just 13 goals in more than 60 games for United, Preston North End and Sunderland prior to the current campaign prompted questions about Welbeck’s propensity to hit the net at the highest level.
But the forward offers more than goals. Running the channels, turning central defenders and, arguably most important of all, enabling Wayne Rooney to drop a little deeper, has allowed United’s forward play to evolve this season. Much as Mexican forward Javier Hernández won plaudits last season for some stunning finishing, scoring 20 in all competition, so Welbeck has added even more to United’s all round game in the current campaign.
No wonder Welbeck has become such a popular figure in the dressing room.
“Danny has a knack of scoring good goals this year for us and at vital times. That’s a great asset for us to have,” defender Chris Smalling told the Manchester Evening News.
“This year he is getting his chance and he is such a threat. He causes defenses so many problems and he did that again against Arsenal’s. It is great for us. He has come on leaps and bounds. He has always had his pace and ability to finish, but he is so much stronger these days. He is a proper Premier League striker now.
“He has come in and joined the show and if he keeps this form up to the end of the season he is going to be great for us and he’ll do well for United and, hopefully, for England in the summer.”
Indeed, a summer trip to Poland and Ukraine appears inevitable, with Peter Crouch out of favour, Andy Carroll still in the goalscoring doldrums and Jermaine Defoe second choice for his club. Making his début earlier this season, Welbeck now has three senior caps to add to the 14 earned at under-21 level. And on current form Welbeck could well reprise his blossoming club partnership with Rooney at international level. When the Scouser returns from a much debated two match ban, of course.
But international glory – or disappointment if history is any lesson – will come later. For now Welbeck will play a key role in United’s unlikely hunt for three trophies this season.
It is every fan’s dream of course – the local boy, wearing the United shirt, scoring the winner among those whom would have been his heroes. But for the supreme talent Welbeck possesses that is.
“I was over the moon scoring the winner against Arsenal,” said the forward on Sunday.
“I am getting a starting berth up top with Wazza in behind me. I think we are forming a great partnership and I am looking forward to carrying that on. The team worked tirelessly all the way through the game at Arsenal. It was a great team effort and we were delighted to get the three points.”
But it isn’t all dreams come true. Welbeck’s injury record is suspect, a fact that will hamper the player if it continues. The forward would not be the first player to miss their full potential because of poor luck with injury. Moreover, the player is still growing according to his manager. Whether greater bulk will take the edge of Welbeck’s pace is another concern.
Yet, having overcome a late teen growth spurt, and Osgood-Schlatter disease that threatened the player’s knees, few will bet against Welbeck facing up to any challenges that come his way.
“Danny’s fantastic,” Ferguson said after United’s win at Arsenal.
“His work-rate, movement all the time on the shoulder of the defender or ready to run through. Really he could have scored five, he was through four times. He’s unlucky but he’s got the important goal and has continued his run in the first team, that is up to nine goals or something like that. For a 20-year-old he’s playing really well.”
That he is; and now a central cog in United’s machine. Supporters will be thankful then when the 21-year-old puts pen to a new lucrative contract at some point this season, ensuring the player’s long-term future at Old Trafford.