Tag Danny Welbeck

Tag Danny Welbeck

United’s identity under scrutiny – twas ever thus

September 8, 2014 Tags: , , Opinion 25 comments
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Identity. It is a topic on many lips in the wake of Manchester United’s spending spree this summer. United unloaded around £150 million on six high-class imports during the window, and yet the deal that generated most copy was Danny Welbeck’s departure to Arsenal. The end of more than 130 years of youthful tradition or the reaffirmation that United remains among the world’s élite?

On the face of it the answer is simple. In a global game United simply swapped Welbeck, an inconsistent academy graduate with 29 goals in 142 games, for a proven class in Radamel Falcao. The price differential says as much: Welbeck cost Arsenal £16 million, Falcao north of £45 million when he signs permanently next summer. There is, after all, no room for sentimentality in the hunt for success.

Yet, United’s is a history replete with the fruits of youth development and Welbeck the leading player in a contemporary academy cohort that is symbolic of more than simply ‘who is best on the pitch.’ Youth, some say, is United’s essence, its soul, the raison d’être. This was consistently Sir Alex Ferguson’s line during his 27-year tenure at Old Trafford.

The player’s sale, amidst United’s conversion to the world’s leading sports marketing platform in a globalised brand economy, says much for the club’s priorities – the maintenance of commercial interests remains just as paramount as success on the pitch.  Or in other words, while Falcao represents an upgrade for Louis van Gaal’s team, the Colombian’s profile also serves to feed a commercial entity more voracious for star names than ever.

It is this economic evolution of the club, the game and those that follow it that feels uneasy for many. Perhaps, even, this observation is at the root of criticism from within, even if naked resentment is the fuel from without. Not everybody is comfortable with United’s quickfire conversion for parsimony to plunder.

“Is it better to look at the instant rather than the future?” said former assistant manager Mike Phelan last week. “It is a difficult one because youth is always the future. Maybe this is the start of a new way of doing things at Manchester United and maybe that is the way football is going.”

United reacted strongly to the accusation that youth has taken a back stage, briefing media that 12 academy players are registered in the club’s wider Premier League group. More, indeed, than any other club in England. In James Wilson, Tyler Blackett, Reece James, and Jesse Lingaard, Van Gaal has already demonstrated faith in youngsters this season.

It is a familiar line. The difference between United and the club’s competitors? “Not spending fortunes on proven goods,” said Sir Alex in 2012. “That’s the difference between United and the rest – we can play 18-year-olds because it’s part of our history. It’s like a destiny for us. No other clubs can do that.”

Yet, there are also powerful forces driving the club to a future that is tied not to the academy but global recognition. Indeed, the club’s recent sponsorship deals with Chevrolet and adidas will push United’s annual revenue beyond £500 million in the coming years. Add more than 30 further global and regional sponsors to the roster and the hunger for success may now only be part of United’s culture. Stardom drives United’s commercial needs and, perhaps, future player recruitment too.

It is an observation that has led to the conclusion in some quarters that United will now seek out the most expensive players on the planet. Far cry from the austerity of the first eight years of Glazer ownership when debt bit deep into United’s investment and Ferguson ran his team on a comparative shoestring.

But with commercial revenues on the uptick, and debt interest at circa £20 million per year, executive vice chairman Ed Woodward has many reasons to feel emboldened in the market.

Further cash is seemingly available in January too, with potential recruits said to include Kevin Strootman that will take the club’s annual spend beyond £200 million for the year, including Juan Mata last winter. No longer a burden, so goes the spin, player recruitment is now an investment in United’s brand equity.

In the midst of this discussion it is easy to forget that Welbeck is also a very fine player, not just a local recruit. The Longsight-born striker has never been one to lead the goalscoring charts, perhaps, but those who champion the 23-year-old’s cause point to other qualities beyond goalscoring. Indeed, six goals in as many games last Christmas point to a player capable of scoring more frequent if given the opportunity in a more central role.

“He’s a real threat to defenders and, if Arsenal use him right, he will be very dangerous for them,” said former United defender Rio Ferdinand.

“I cannot believe United let him go, especially to Arsenal. That seems mad to me. Danny has everything to be a top player. English football has yet to see what he can really do because he hasn’t been getting a run of games. At Arsenal, he will be the main man and I have no doubt he will flourish.”

Welbeck’s departure, together with a dozen other players, including Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Ryan Giggs, has come amid the most rapid evolution in United’s playing squad for two decades.

Indeed, Van Gaal’s challenge – to knit together what is effectively a new team – is one that no United manager has faced since Ferguson sold Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince in 1995. The following season Ferguson integrated Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes into the United side to much success.

Yet, in the years before 2005 Ferguson also broke the British transfer record eight times, just has Sir Matt Busby had done for Dennis Law in the wake of the ‘Babes’ destruction at Munich in 1958. Youth and investment – hasn’t the club always played both games? Scrutiny, too, has always followed.

Yet, as the Glazer family’s parsimony cut into the United’s competitiveness from 2005-2013 it was also Ferguson who left a squad in far from “the strongest possible shape.”  The Scot stood back in retirement and watched Rome burn. The club, it seems, is now trying to rebuild in a day.

“It is a change of direction for United letting one of their own go,” adds Ferdinand. “Traditionally, this was not their way, adding so many players in a short period of time and having such a radical overhaul. Normally, as with me when I joined in 2002, it was about adding one piece to the jigsaw.

“Some fans still romanticise about their success and the way they brought through so many home-grown players. Unfortunately, you can’t always have that fairytale. Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria are world-class players and they have added quality in Anders Herrera, Luke Shaw and Daley Blind, but I do wonder if they will live to regret not keeping Danny.”

That story will play out in the year to come; Welbeck’s performance at Arsenal and Van Gaal’s ability to get the best out of £150 million worth of new talent.

As ever it will not only be United’s success on the line, but the club’s ‘identity’ too. Twas ever thus.

Data Rant: Danny Welbeck

September 3, 2014 Tags: , Data 11 comments
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Danny Welbeck’s departure to Arsenal is peculiar in the sense that the London club was arguably in greater need of Radamel Falcao than Manchester United. As is, United has upgraded the forward line while Arsenal has acquired a Premier League quality forward to weather the loss of Olivier Giroud. Win-win, perhaps, but Welbeck’s transfer is far more nuanced than squad betterment alone. It leaves the question of just how successful Welbeck can be at Arsenal?

A local lad leaving his boyhood club has understandably stoked an emotional response from many Reds. On the pitch, though, the England international has divided opinions. Welbeck’s athleticism is obvious for all, but his technique and, in particular, finishing have been often questioned – the former United striker has never broken the 20 goal-a-season barrier.

There is a popular counter argument though: that Welbeck has often been shunted into roles that are not his best, either deep or out wide, to “do a job.” Welbeck will, goes the argument, fulfil his goalscoring potential once he is given a run as the main forward. Daniel Sturridge has flourished since his move to Liverpool and has often been cited as an example supporting this thesis.

Welbeck, at least until Giroud returns from injury, will be deployed up-front at the Emirates – the Longsight-born striker will have a solid series of games in his favoured position, injuries permitting. It is a role he may keep should goals come for Arsenal.

Yet, Wayne Rooney’s rapid decline and Robin van Persie’s age may also necessitate reinforcement at United beyond Falcao in the coming years. With neither Rooney nor van Persie always injury-free, Welbeck’s sale could very well go down as a strategic mistake should the Englishman become the forward some believe him to be.

Data Rant looks to statistical analysis to see if this scenario is possible. We have used 2013/14 season data and look at forwards who scored more than 10 goals in the Premier League.

First, we investigate whether number of shots per match has any relation to goals scored. After all, Welbeck’s stats should improved as a regular first team starter as he will have more opportunities to strike at goal.


Figure 1, above, makes perfect sense – more shots equals more goals, although the question of why remains. Next, we look if shot accuracy has any relationship with goals scored. After all, more shots on target should lead to more goals.


In figure 2 there is no trend to speak of. This also makes sense – after all, one goal in 10 shots on target and one goal after nine off-target means essentially the same thing. In figure 3, below, we look at correlation between shot conversion rate and goals scored.


Again there is little correlation. If we look deeper at the data there is little variation in accuracy or conversion (Emmanuel Adebayor’s freakish 33.3 per cent conversion rate aside). Does this mean that there is little to finishing apart from getting into the box and taking a chance? Figure 4 demonstrates that this theory does not hold up.


So far we have neglected the role of provider: the team must do just as much work to feed the striker for a goal to be scored. To see how important chance creation is in goals scored we look at number of assists each striker’s team recorded in 2013/14.


In figure 5, above, there is a fairly strong relationship, which is obvious. What isn’t obvious is the fact that the number of goals scored is almost purely dependent upon the number of shots attempted. Amongst the élite, there seems to be little difference in ‘finishing’ and scoring principally comes down to chance creation and frequency of goal attempts.

One thing that the data, at least the publicly available kind, doesn’t capture is movement. But if off-the-ball movement was so important then the role of creator would be greater than the data appears to demonstrate – after all, off-the-ball runs have to be found.


In figure 6 there is a very strong relationship between take on attempts per game and goals. More important than having creative teammates is a striker’s ability to create his own chances.

The data indicates that finishing as a technique is overrated. Instead a striker should be judged by his ability to take as many shots as possible. That ability is predicated somewhat by his team’s creative prowess, but more importantly by a striker’s ability to beat his marker on his own. This conjecture is supported by the struggles that some ‘fox-in-the-box’ players, such as Javier Hernández, face in modern game.

It is difficult to predict Welbeck’s future given that he has played out of position for much of his time at United. Welbeck’s conversion rate of 25 per cent and shot accuracy of 53 per cent do suggest that enough raw finishing ability is available to the Gunners. What is clear from the analysis, however, is that he must shoot and dribble more often. This should come with more game time and greater confidence. There is every chance that United will come to regret the move.

All data from Squawka
Assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict

At last ‘Dat Guy’ Welbz comes good

January 13, 2014 Tags: Opinion 11 comments
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It was a little under a month ago when David Moyes questioned Danny Welbeck’s application to his craft. Here, said the Scot, was a player in a need of a little more practice; a striker who had scored just two goals in 40 games the previous season. Little wonder Welbeck has developed a reputation for a high quality all-round game, let down by woeful finishing.

Such was the manager’s concern that he publicly warned the Longsight-born player to be “last off the training field,” after practicing “free-kicks, shooting from tight angles or bending them in.”

“I’ve got to say we had a word with him about a month ago and we said that he needs to be the last off the training field,” said Moyes just before the Christmas break.

“Wayne’s out there practising his finishing each day, whether it’s taking free-kicks, shooting from tight angles or bending them in, whatever it may be Wayne’s practising. I said: ‘Danny, you need to be out there every day finishing, even if it’s 15 minutes at the end.'”

The rejoinder was swift though. “I have been doing that ever since I have been at United,” said the striker in what threatened to become an embarrassing row, albeit for the briefest moment. “Maybe the manager has not seen me on the training pitch as much. Obviously, at Manchester United, I want to be working hard and I have been doing that ever since I was a young kid.”

Welbeck’s rebuke sounded a little further east of complacent than is typical for a player schooled under Sir Alex Ferguson. Extra practice was, well, a habit supposedly begun under Eric Cantona’s tutelage, and drilled into subsequent generations as United looked to replicated the ‘class of ’92’.

Fortunately Welbeck’s feet talk a better game. Indeed, the forward has scored six in his last six matches since Robin van Persie was injured against Shaktar Donetsk on 10 December last year. Two against Aston Villa in Birmingham, another in the Reds’ victory over West Ham United at Old Trafford, then more against Norwich City, Tottenham Hotspur, and then in victory over Swansea City on Saturday.

In total Welbeck has nine goals in 21 matches this season; eight in 11 Premier League starts. It’s a fine haul for a player who has oft been accused of being wasteful in front of goal. Worse, Welbeck’s profligacy has shaped to hold back a career that for four seasons has been on the cusp of taking off, but no more.

No longer. Welbeck is now every inch a Premier League striker of rare bread. Pace, power and a fantastic first touch have now been joined by, it seems, a new ability to finish.

In the six there have been some fine strikes too, with the kind of variety common among the élite. The flick to score United’s second against Swansea demonstrated a lover’s touch, while the deft chip to grab United’s consolation against Spurs betrayed a new confidence. He rounded the ‘keeper against Norwich, and drilled it low and hard to open the scoring when West Ham came to town. You get the picture.

Swansea proved another uplifting moment for the striker and indeed the team after three losses on the bounce. Cup defeats to the Swans and Sunderland, and the New Year’s Day victory for Spurs at Old Trafford, had threatened to completely derail the Reds’ season. It is, says Welbeck, a base from which to build.

“We’ve set a platform now and really want to build on that and gather some momentum,” Welbeck told MUTV on Saturday.

“The next match is the most important now. That’s what you’ve got to do, take it one game at a time. Being a Manchester lad and being a United fan, there is extra passion inside me and it does hurt me when I see the team losing. It hurts a lot to see United not winning.

“I can understand why fans are concerned. We are not around the Champions League spots at the moment. We need to get our form back and just win the next matches.”

Victory over Swansea may indeed provide a platform for United, but it is injury first to Robin van Persie and then Wayne Rooney that has proffered Welbeck his stage this season. It is an opportunity that the striker has genuinely grasped, not only in goals scored, but improved metrics across the board.

Welbeck’s 54 per cent of shots on target is 12 percentage points higher than last season, for example, while the player’s passing has also improved. The Mancunian has created fewer chances this season, but then he is finally leading the line.

The story doesn’t end there though. Welbeck’s next goal must surely be to achieve a level of consistency he is yet to find over a slow-burning career. After all, now 23, Welbeck is no longer a kid.

Having made his début in September 2008, Welbeck has racked up just 124 appearances – 81 starts – for United in the five years that have passed. While the player spent a season on loan at Sunderland, for too long Welbeck has been a bit part, or worse, an afterthought.

Yet, in a World Cup year the striker could not only cement his place in the United side, but lead England on the world stage in Brazil. Probably alongside his team-mate Rooney. Now that’s progress.

“I want some more goals, I can tell you that, I want some more goals,” said Welbeck recently, demonstrating the kind of hunger of which Moyes will surely approve. “I have got a figure in my mind, I want to score plenty more goals.”

Perhaps it’s enough motivation to stay on the training ground for those few extra minutes.

Ravel and Danny – a sidebar

There is a little under seven miles between Longsight and Wythenshaw, the childhood homes of Ravel Morrison and Danny Welbeck, but on the pitch there is now more than 200. While Welbeck appears to have finally made his big United breakthrough this season, Morrison was shipped out to West Ham United 18 months ago. It has proven to be a blessing for the troubled 20-year-old, who could yet join his long-time friend in the England squad heading off the Brazil next summer after a fine season.

But it is Morrison’s Tweets that have caught the eye, with the midfielder first hailing a Welbeck goal against Manchester City in January 2012 with the now infamous cry “My boy WELBZ ZUPZUP say nada ahahahahahahah xxxxx,” before claiming that “welbz is dat guy” after another in February 2013.

Welbz is Dat Guy

Welbeck’s role from international left field

September 8, 2013 Tags: Opinion 7 comments
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International week can drag, with Euro-area World Cup qualifiers having long descended into a quagmire of identikit tactics, predictable scores and, frankly, sub-standard football. Jonathan Wilson disciples may cry foul, but World Cup tournament football, by its very nature, offers far greater diversity, while the Champions League has become the game’s blue riband competition.

And if the football this week hasn’t exactly inspired, then there has been little success for the home nations either. Gordon Strachan’s Scotland side was beaten comfortably by Marouanne Fellaini’s Belgium at Hampden Park, while fans in both the north and south of Ireland ended Friday night disappointed. Wales, sans Gareth Bale, lost miserably in Macedonia. None of the quartet will qualify for Brazil 2014.

England emerged victorious, however, with Wembley cheering the home side to a 4-0 thrashing of a Moldova side that has collected just five points in Group H. The result bares little relevance to England’s performance in Brazil next summer, should the Three Lions qualify at all. That qualification may depend both on the performance and absence of Manchester United’s Danny Welbeck.

The Longsight-born striker was much criticised last season for scoring just twice in the Premier League; much of it justified, with the striker’s finishing far more timid than the player’s all-round excellence demands. By contrast Welbeck’s international tally now stands eight in 18 matches after the 22-year-old scored a brace against the Moldovans. He has started just 10 games for his country, having become the country’s leading striker under new England manager Roy Hodgson.

Welbeck remains raw, and his finishing can be a frustration, although he is scoring an increasingly impressive range of goals. The tap-in put away in the 45th minute of England’s victory over Moldova on Friday night was as pleasing as the smartly taken goal early in the second half, when the United forward’s sublime first touch allowed him to beat both defender and goalkeeper in one motion.

Indeed, Welbeck’s career has taken such a leap forward in recent weeks that there is something approaching national mourning at the forward’s absence from next Tuesday’s match with Ukraine in Kiev. Roy Hodgson remonstrated vociferously with referee Paolo Tagliavento over Welbeck’s second caution in the qualifying tournament, while former Red Gary Neville left the Italian in no doubt about England’s upset.

Welbeck received a controversial yellow card for ‘kicking the ball away at a free-kick’ after the striker shot having been flagged offside. It is no reason to miss a potentially career-defining football match, especially not after Welbeck had previously received a booking for ‘diving’ against Montenegro – a decision clearly demonstrated as  incorrect by television replays.

“The booking for Danny Welbeck has overshadowed the night,” Hodgson admitted on Friday.

“We were already very short of front players. I don’t believe it was a yellow card offence, and the other one he got in Montenegro, we should have had a penalty and he was booked for diving. He’s been unbelievably unfortunate. It makes life difficult for us. It doesn’t get much more unfortunate than that but we’re getting used to dealing with misfortune.”

Perhaps more impressive than Welbeck’s goals at Wembley, however, was another demonstration of the Englishman’s tactical flexibility. The England manager once again deployed Welbeck at inside-left on Friday night, one of a forward triumvirate, with Theo Walcott on the Lions’ right-flank, and Ricky Lambert through the middle. The role has both suited Welbeck and released the forward to score liberally at international level, where he is free to cut in, shoot, or make late runs into danger areas.

The left-flank has rarely benefited Welbeck for his club though – a role Sir Alex Ferguson asked the academy graduate to take for much of last season. The difference, it seems, is Hodgson’s choice to deploy three central midfielders, which has released Welbeck from many of the defensive duties required at Old Trafford.

This success at international level poses an interesting question: could the forward’s good form for England on the left be replicated for United? The thought is, of course, counter-intuitive, and it would take a significant tactical re-jiggling of David Moyes side to play with three in the engine room. But with so little quality available to the Scot in that position Welbeck offers an attractive option.

Through more than a decade at Everton Moyes has honed a system that almost invariably uses split strikers, with a shadow or an attacking midfielder supporting a lone forward; a system Ferguson might instantly recognise. And Moyes has earmarked Wayne Rooney for the shadow role at Old Trafford, although Fellaini scored 11 goals deployed in a similar manner for Everton last season.

One area Moyes has typically differed in his approach to Sir Alex is in a propensity to use central midfielders rather than foward on the wing – Steven Pienaar is a classic case – and another is demanding a high pressing game.

Neither is a trait of Hodgson’s teams though; Welbeck’s inclusion on the left under the veteran coach contradicts the tasks demanded by Moyes. Welbeck played in very close support of Lambert at Wembley in what looked very much like a modern 4-3-3. Nor was United’s man typically asked to cover Ashley Cole at left-back. He will not enjoy that luxury under the Reds’ new management.

First, Welbeck needs to find a permanent role in the United side to match the status he now enjoys with the national team. Yet, in the player’s preferred central role Moyes will deploy Robin van Persie and Rooney barring injury.

On the left Welbeck may enjoy a greater run though; the question for the player is whether the defensive duties demanded by Moyes restricts his goalscoring exploits. History suggests it will.

The left-field tactical choice might be to ape Hodgson’s narrow formation, focus on United’s area of strength in attack, while deprioritizing the club’s traditional whimsy for touchline-hugging wingers. It is, after all, not an area where Moyes enjoys plentiful resources.

Nor can the manager count on the successful deployment of two central midfielders, with talent so thin on the ground despite Fellaini’s arrival.

It’s as unlikely path though, at least at United, leaving Welbeck freer to enjoy the international goalscoring on show against Moldova at Wembley than is probable for his club in the coming season.

Patient Welbeck garners praise, but not always matches

October 15, 2012 Tags: Opinion 18 comments

“I am a massive fan of Danny’s,” gushed Michael Carrick ahead of England’s World Cup fixture with Poland in Warsaw on Tuesday night. The man in question: Manchester United striker Danny Welbeck, who is fresh from scoring an international double against San Marino at Wembley last week. Welbeck, who has started six times in 10 international matches under England manager Roy Hodgson, scored a wonderfully improvised back-heel against Sweden at Euro 2012, followed by Friday night’s brace to launch an international career into the mainstream.

Indeed, the international break has offered the Longsight-born forward some welcome minutes on the pitch, with Welbeck having slipped behind £24 million Robin van Persie in United’s striking pecking order this season. Five starts, and as many from the bench, have brought WElbeck no goals for Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team, following a dozen in the previous campaign.

It leaves the striker respected by colleagues, wanted by his national manager, but partly marginalised at club level, in what had promised to be a strong second full season in Ferguson’s outfit.

“He has been terrific,” adds Carrick, who has been brought back into the international fold, and could start in Warsaw at club-mate Tom Cleverley’s expense.

“Ever since I first saw him I have expected big things of him. He has had a terrific couple of years. People were looking at him when we signed van Persie saying, ‘Where is his position, where is he going to fit in?’ But he showed he is still a major part of it and he was terrific against San Marino.

“If he keeps performing like that he is only going to get better. He can create and score goals. He can play different positions, he can play wide, he can play up top – he is a real talent. He is modest too, what you’d expect coming through the ranks at United. The manager sets standards for the young lads and Danny doesn’t get carried away and this won’t change him at all. He just gets back and starts working hard again and that is what he does best – that is one of his biggest assets.”

That work rate will be tested in the weeks ahead, with van Persie having scored seven times in nine games this season and Wayne Rooney back to full fitness. Moreover, with Ferguson having switched to a ‘wingless’ diamond midfield in recent matches, Welbeck’s chances have also been limited in wide areas for club, if not country.

Baring further injury to Rooney, who missed a month of the season with a serious gash, or van Persie, then Welbeck is likely to remain on Ferguson’s bench for the time being – at least for many of United’s most prominent matches this season.

It is a situation that leaves Welbeck’s flourishing England career somewhat incongruent, although the forward’s double last week is not guaranteed to keep the 21-year-old striker in Hodgson’s side, with Tottenham Hotspur’s Jermain Defoe available. Demotion to the bench, if it comes at all, will surelyreflect less on the United youngster’s talents than the need for experience in a testing away fixture.

Welbeck’s strikes against San Marino brings his total to four in 12 matches for England, while Defoe now has 17 in half a century of caps over close to a decade of international football. Indeed, if Defoe’s international career is now into its autumn years, with the striker having turned 30 earlier this month, then Welbeck’s is just beginning.

It is a marginal call for the often conservative Hodgson, although Welbeck’s relationship with Rooney, which flourished at club level last season, may tip the balance in favour of the Mancunian on Tuesday, especially with England’s manager looking two years hence to the World Cup in Brazil.

“I’m used to playing with Wazza up front at United,” pitched Welbeck on Monday. “I’m really relishing the chance to play with him for England. Once we get into positions in and around the box, we know different styles of combinations to play.”

The striker has also formed a strong bond with club team-mate Cleverley, who provided assists for both Welbeck’s goals at Wembley. Welbeck, like, Cleverley, has been with the United academy since childhood; both coming through into the national set-up during Hodgson’s reign.

“We have known each other for many years now,” said Cleverley.

“I’ve been there since I was 11. He’s been there since he was nine. So we’ve built up a relationship over the years, on and off the pitch. I feel comfortable playing with him and he’s a good lad as well. His movement, his touch, finishing, pace and power are top class. He’s got everything.”

The lavish praise is far removed from Welbeck’s early years with United; a gangling kid, often deployed on the wing, unsure of movement or first touch. And Welbeck will need to demonstrate that his physical attributes are matched by those of a technical nature, especially in front of goal, if the striker is to further flourish for club and country.

After all, criticism of the forward’s strike-rate is prominent – four in 12 for England is mirrored by 17 in 73 at club level for United.

Neither statistic can, for example, match van Persie’s strike rate for United this season, nor at Arsenal in the campaign just concluded, although it is instructive that the Dutchman struck just 21 times in all competitions for the norther Londoners in his first two full seasons.

In that there remains a positive role model for the younger man, even if Ferguson is loath to proffer Welbeck more minutes while van Persie and Rooney remain fit. And if games at Old Trafford are rare it is Welbeck’s patience, and perhaps his international credentials, that will come under the microscope for the time being.

Welbeck told to hit 20 in fight for United place

July 19, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 21 comments

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.

Welbz and Young: England’s lone rangers

June 10, 2012 Tags: , , , International 32 comments

With Euro 2012 well under way attention has turned, momentarily Rant suspects, from the tittle-tattle of transfer market gossip to the world’s second biggest football tournament™, which is taking place in Poland and Ukraine over the next three weeks. In between bouts of organised racism, fans from 16 countries hope to witness some high quality football. Before Spain or Germany inevitably walk off with the trophy, of course.

There’s plenty of Manchester United-related interest in this one, with seven current players and six ex-Reds taking part – Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck for England, Patrice Evra with France, Anders Lindegaard with Denmark, and Nani with Portugal.

Many United supporters will also point to Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick’s bizarre exclusion from the England set-up. The former of whom had Roy Hodgson fluffing his lines in a BBC interview on Saturday, with the England coach now claiming that Ferdinand is “too good” to sit on the bench. There’s Rant thinking Rio might have been “too black” to be in the same squad as John Terry. But then, Rant is the cynical type.

England, meanwhile, enter an international tournament with the lowest expectations since Bobby Robson’s side lost all three group matches at Euro 1988 in Germany – to Holland, the Soviet Union and Ray Houghton’s Ireland. There’s unlikely to be much shock should England return home early once more after three difficult fixtures in the next 10 days.

And the start couldn’t be much tougher for Hodgson’s men, with a vibrant France the first opponents on Monday afternoon. The sight of the aforementioned Terry, reportedly carrying groin and hamstring injuries, trying to keep Karim Benzema, Franck Ribéry, Olivier Giroud, Hatem Ben Arfa and Samir Nasri at bay will surely bring a rueful smile to Ferdinand’s face. After all, while Terry is built like a tank, he also turns like one, to bastardise an infamous piece of mid-1990s commentary.

But there is hope for Hodgson’s men, with England set to follow Chelsea’s lead by ‘parking the bus’ against the French in Donetsk. It isn’t going to be pretty, but anti-football can be effective on occasion. The question is how does England strike the balance between allowing the few creative players to flourish, and carrying out Hodgson’s plan A – to make the Three Lions difficult to beat.

Indeed, United’s Welbeck and Young will likely be the focus of England’s attack for Hodgson’s side on Monday, with Liverpool’s Andy Carroll on the bench. Hodgson may be all for anti-football this summer, just not that anti-football it seems. The United duo should offer plenty of food for thought to France’s somewhat pedestrian central defensive partnership of Phillip Mexes and Adil Rami.

But all that pace and dynamism is wasted if England can’t get the ball into Young and Welbeck’s feet. Early reports suggest the technically limited Stewart Downing and James Milner are to be prefered to the more attacking, but defensively suspect, Arsenal duo of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott in wide areas. While Steven Gerard will play the central midfield position, at which he has never shown any tactical discipline, along side Scott Parker – a wholehearted but limited midfielder.

France’s inevitable midfield superiority will be hard on both Young and Welbeck, with the later in particular likely to spend long periods without the ball. It’s a challenge Young appears to have taken on with gusto. After all, the United winger has scored six in his last 10 internationals to become the national team’s leading man in Wayne Rooney’s absence. Young is once again set to take on Rooney’s ‘number 10’ role for the national team, with Welbeck leading the line.

“When you play for Manchester United, the pressure’s on every week,” Young told reporters on Sunday.

“Everyone wants to beat Manchester United, so when it comes to playing with pressure, it’s no problem. I enjoy having a challenge. I remember the manager, Sir Alex, saying to me when I first joined United that it would be a big challenge for me. I’ve played a whole season now and I’m full of confidence. I’m looking forward to Monday.

“I’m a versatile player. I have been throughout my career: up front, either wing or off a main striker. I want to be creative, to get on the ball, to play. That’s exactly what I’m looking to do on Monday. I played this role for a whole season at Aston Villa and I’ve played it [for England] in the last few games. I’ve been getting on the scoresheet, getting assists. It’s up to me to use my brain, be clever, find the pockets of space and get on the ball. I think I can do that.”

True, Young has excelled in the position for England in recent games, offering a direct, intelligent, and pacey style that will compliment Welbeck’s movement into the channels. Welbeck’s inclusion will also encourage England to play the ball on the ground at least. Carroll’s would surely do the exact opposite.

But this is England; this is international competitive, and waste possession is what every England side has done at recent tournaments. At least the ones England actually qualified for. It points to a lonely late-afternoon for United’s dynamic forward duo.

Meanwhile, former United defender and France coach Laurent Blanc is wary of Welbeck’s threat, while mindful of England’s likely negative mindset.

“They’ll drop back, have a bank of four with some quick players in there, and try and hit us on the break,” said Blanc.

“We need to be careful with that and make sure we’re not caught off guard. If there’s space in behind our back four, they’ll counter-attack. If they play Welbeck, we’ll have to leave him as little space as possible to exploit.

“But we’ll play our own style. If we sat back and waited for the English to come at us, it’d be 0-0 and we might end up only threatening to score a goal from a set-piece. No, there’ll be two very different philosophies on show and I hope the side that plays more football will win the game.”

Few, least of all England’s players, will bet on Hodgson’s side playing more football on Monday. But if the Three Lions are to get anything from the match, then United’s lonely forward duo surely hold the key.

Welbeck: from awkward kid to United’s star turn

January 25, 2012 Tags: Opinion 17 comments

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.

Welbeck rise leaves Berba in the cold

August 24, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 16 comments

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.

Welbeck’s dilemma

March 30, 2011 Tags: Opinion 28 comments

Danny Welbeck is conflicted. No, not the choice Manchester United’s 20-year-old striker has between England and Ghana – surely any sane footballer would have chosen the West African World Cup quarter-finalists – but that of his club future. Welbeck, recently returned from a two month spell on the sidelines with a knee injury, must decide whether to stay at Old Trafford next season or seek another move out on loan. It is a choice that could define a career.

Sir Alex Ferguson, long a vocal admirer on the Longsight-born striker, says that Welbeck will return to Old Trafford after an “excellent” season on-loan at Steve Bruce’s Sunderland. The forward has scored six Premier League goals in 26 appearances, often from a wide position that demonstrates not only the player’s potential but flexibility to boot. It’s a quality that is highly admired by Ferguson.

Yet Welbeck could find himself one of six front-line strikers at Untied next season, potentially behind Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández, Dimitar Berbatov and Federico Macheda in the pecking order. That is without factoring in Bébé and Gabriel Obertan or the – admittedly remote – possibility that Michael Owen may sign a new one-year contract.

By contrast Welbeck admits he has made rapid progress under Bruce’s tutelage. Not least because when fit the youngster has played more often that not. There’s nothing like experience to accelerate the development curve in a raw player.

“I am delighted with my progress,” says Welbeck.

“[Making an England début] was invaluable in terms of my progress and I’ll take that in my stride. It is nothing to sit on because I’ve not done anything at all yet and I’m really looking to push on and keep improving as a player.

“I’m pretty happy with the progress I’ve made this season and I feel being at Sunderland this season has really helped me. The manager, Steve Bruce, and coaching staff have been really terrific and I’ve learnt a lot.”

Welbeck’s England début marked another destination in a sometimes rocky road the striker has travelled. Long admired at Old Trafford, Welbeck has suffered both from injury and growth spurts that hampered his development. At times devastatingly inventive and skillful; on other occasions seemingly ill at ease in his own body.

The best of Welbeck was arguably seen at Stamford Bridge earlier this season when the 20-year-old, in tandem with Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan, was instrumental in the Wearsiders’ 3-0 win over Chelsea. It was a performance that demonstrated both Welbeck’s appreciation of his teammates, the geometry of football and his goalscoring prowess.

The latter is, of course, an area in which Welbeck must develop if he is to force his way into both the England and United teams on a more permanent basis. The striker’s six goals this season represent decent progress but nothing more than that. The forward has just five goals in 24 appearances in a United shirt, while at international youth level the striker has scored at less than one in three games in the under-17, under-19 and under-21 age groups.

Meanwhile his club manager Bruce was understandably delighted for the player, not least because Welbeck played for the under-21s last Thursday too. The international minutes should accelerate the striker’s return Sunderland’s first team picture, if not help Bruce’s long-held wish to take Welbeck to the Stadium of Light permanently.

“It was great news for Sunderland, and for the boy who really deserves the accolades,” 50-year-old Bruce told TalkSport.

“It’s testament to what he’s achieved since being here We’ll try our best [to get him] but Manchester United have got another really, really good fantastic player and it’s not often you can buy a very good young player off anybody.

“I need to go and get Sir Alex and get few bottles of red wine down him. Before he got injured a couple of months ago he had seven goals in nine appearances and was starting to produce performances which were way above his age.”

Not that Sunderland would be the only suitors should Ferguson allow Welbeck to move on, either on loan or permanently. Indeed, recent tabloid newspaper reports have mooted Welbeck as a make-weight in United’s long-running pursuit of Everton’s midfielder Jack Rodwell.

Indeed, leaving Old Trafford on loan afforded Welbeck an opportunity to play that would not have been so at United this season, especially with Hernández’ rapid development and Berbatov’s goalscoring. It is a dilemma that Welbeck may need to overcome again this summer: return to Old Trafford and be part of a squad system, or leave on loan and continue to progress.

It is a choice that will define a players short and long-term future.