When Paris Saint Germain sporting director Leonardo called Sir Alex Ferguson earlier this summer the Brazilian cannot have been surprised at the answer received. No, the Scot said, to Leonardo’s polite enquiry about Dimitar Berbatov’s availability. That was a little more than six weeks ago when, flush with Qatari money, PSG remained bent on signing United’s Bulgarian as the French club’s summer marquee player.
Three games into the new season, Ferguson will have cause to reconsider his decision – a bold one at that – turning down a bid of around €20 million for a player pushing past 30 and out of contract in 10 months time. Ferguson’s decision was, of course, based on prudence. Last season’s top goalscorer offers something none of his contemporaries at Old Trafford can; the Scot has always valued a flexible range of attacking choices.
“If you look at Berbatov, Owen, Hernandez and Rooney, they all have different qualities,” Ferguson said after United’s 3-0 victory Monday night.
“You have to utilise all that and make changes as best you can. The horrible part for me now is with having Javier back, what do we do? It is going to be a big problem for me.”
Yet, Longsight-born striker Danny Welbeck has started each of United’s competitive games this season, scoring a fine header against Tottenham Hotspur on Monday night and earning a call to Fabio Capello’s England squad for the aborted friendly against Holland.
The 20-year-old’s rapid progress leaves Ferguson the tough task of managing Berbatov’s remaining time with United. Even more so given Hernández’ return to fitness that leaves Berbatov fourth choice at Old Trafford despite last season’s heroics. Moreover, while nobody doubts the Bulgarian’s talent there is seemingly a growing consensus that United’s vibrant, flexible and pacey attacking play this season is far better served with Rooney, Hernández and Welbeck leading the line, rather than the former Spurs striker.
Then there is Welbeck’s progress since recovering from a debilitating knee-problem during his teenage years. The talent has always been evident. After all Ferguson once predicted that the youngster would make Capello’s 2010 World Cup squad. The end product, however, has been honed during a year under Steve Bruce’s tutelage at Sunderland.
“Danny is a big, rangy, long-legged boy who can gallop really quickly,” Ferguson said of Welbeck, who despite the positive start to the season, has been demoted to England Under-21s this week.
“Once he gets his legs going he is quick. He is a good footballer and has a great attitude when he loses the ball. He has always had ability but made slow progress because when he was growing he had a bit of a knee growth problem, so we knew we had to wait for him.
“We put him on loan to Sunderland last season and that is when he became a man. He has grown up. He is still only 20 years of age and the lad has a great future.”
But if the future is Welbeck then the Berbatov calculation is more subtle than simply retention of multiple options. After all, Ferguson has promised Michael Owen more games this season, while Federico Macheda and Mame Biram Diouf – neither made the bench for the Spurs game – each retain hopes of making it at Old Trafford.
For Welbeck, however, the equation is far simpler: staying in the team, with Hernández in line to start against Arsenal on Sunday.
“There is no better feeling for a Manc kid than scoring for United. I want more of it,” said Welbeck.
“It gives us [young players] confidence when the manager picks us. The gaffer has built a great squad with youth and experience in abundance. You know that once you’re in that starting eleven, you’ve got to work hard to keep your place. So I think everyone’s working hard in training and doing their best to get in the starting eleven.”
Welbeck is far from the finished article though and the player’s performance against both West Bromwich Albion and for an hour against Spurs was often mediocre. The striker’s understanding of space, his role and that of his colleagues can and will surely improve. Indeed, Ferguson’s half-time assertion that Welbeck provide more attacking presence offers an insight into the progress that United’s new star must still put in.
“I thought in the first half, Danny didn’t play as a centre forward,” added 69-year-old Ferguson.
“He was too much in midfield. We stressed at half-time that we needed more of a presence up front, we needed our targets up there and we needed someone to run through. In the second half they were much better that way and it made a difference to our game.”
Ferguson’s comments also provide another insight: Welbeck is a fast learner, evidenced by the fine 61st minute header than opened United’s account.