Danny Welbeck can barely have wished for a better first full campaign in Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad. Having returned from a year on loan at Sunderland the Longsight-born striker made 39 appearances for Manchester United last term, 27 of them starts, scoring 12 goals in all competitions. Now, Ferguson has set Welbeck a new task; to score more than 20 in the coming Premier League season. It’s a challenge Welbeck is certainly capable of, but only if the 21-year-old earns sufficient game time.
Indeed, even with Michael Owen leaving the club this summer, and Dimitar Berbatov set to remain on the periphery or depart Old Trafford, Sir Alex must still crowbar four players into two forward spots, whatever the system.
Shinji Kagawa’s acquisition for up to £17 million from Borussia Dortmund means that Ferguson is still likely to rotate a quartet of attacking players in just two roles, whether deploying the 4-4-1-1 system so often seen last season, or the much discussed 4-2-3-1 that seemingly suits Kagawa’s talents.
Moreover, with Javier Hernández likely to hit the ground running after a summer of rest and a full pre-season, there is no guarantee that Welbeck will start the new campaign in Ferguson’s team. With Welbeck unlikely to join the tour party until Ferguson’s squad returns to Europe in August the onus is on Chicharito, Kagawa, and perhaps even Berbatov, to stake their respective claims.
Still, Ferguson’s belief in Welbeck has seemingly been enhanced by the striker’s showing at Euro 2012, where the England number nine scored once – a superb back-heel against Sweden – in four appearances, and walked away from the tournament reputation enhanced.
“If you look at the games he played for England at the Euros, he’s never played three games in seven days before, well certainly not for us,” said Ferguson of a player whom he has seen grow into the United shirt.
“So he did really well in that respect. That’s where maturity and development comes in. We’ve fostered him. He’s always had growth spurts and things like that, so we fostered him right that period when he was developing. I don’t think he’s got his full body yet. I think there’s a lot of growth in him yet. I don’t think he’ll get taller, he’s 6ft 3ins now.
“He’s very powerful and, once that growth thing stops, I think you’ll find he can play three games in seven games. There won’t be a problem with that. He’s got good movement, courage and confidence with the ball.
“Obviously, he will have to improve his goalscoring. I think he got nine goals last season but if you are going to be a top striker you have to get 20 goals or above. That will happen to him, I think he will do that.”
In the meantime Welbeck’s brothers, added Ferguson, continue to negotiate a new contract for the striker, with player and club seemingly at an impasse over the deal. Few expect Welbeck to walk away from Old Trafford when his contract ends in just under a year’s time, but it cannot help but play on the striker’s mind.
Meanwhile, Welbeck will have little hope of unseating Rooney from the first team – the player with whom he struck up a fine partnership last season – leaving three seeking, realistically, a single spot, at least for United’s bigger games. Especially with Rooney so productive last season, even in a deeper role.
“Where Wayne has improved is his consistency in scoring goals,” Ferguson told PA Sport.
“He got 32 goals last season and that has made a difference to his game. It’s difficult to say whether he is at a peak or not but his goalscoring has certainly given us more of a reward.”
Meanwhile, Kagawa, who played around four minutes of United’s friendly victory over AmaZulu FC in Durban on Wednesday night, is seeking what was, last season at least, Rooney’s deep-lying forward role in Ferguson’s side. Either that, or Sir Alex will do as Sir Alex does and push the Japanese play-maker into a wide position.
However, assuming Kagawa isn’t wasted on the wing, the 23-year-old’s best hope of playing a pivotal role in United’s upcoming campaign is to force Welbeck onto the sidelines. Something has to give.
Kagawa is likely to start United’s fixture against Cape Town Ajax this coming Saturday as Ferguson rotates his limited tour resources before United depart for China.
“I’ve joined the club but I’ve not shown my potential yet, so this is my first mission and I hope I can show all the supporters what I am able to do,” Kagawa added after coming on as a late substitute on Wednesday.
“This is a great club and I’m looking forward to playing. I have to prove myself on the pitch.”
Welbeck could say the same, despite the positive showing last time out. After all, while 12 goals is a decent return, a one-in-three strike-rate is unlikely to ensure the youngster remains a starter in United’s biggest fixtures. The challenge for Welbeck is to step up a level, adding a lethal streak to the undoubtedly quality on the ball that the striker has developed over the past two campaigns.
Yet, with Hernández and Kagawa snapping at his heals, it is a challenge that Welbeck will do well to meet over the coming season. Perhaps the biggest task of a fledgling career to date.