Welbeck Failing to Take Centre Stage at Arsenal

Published: 06th March 2015 09:48 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th March 2015 09:48 AM   |  A+A-

Danny Welbeck_AP

In moving from Manchester United to Arsenal with just minutes of the summer transfer window deadline day remaining, Danny Welbeck's motivation for leaving the club that had nurtured him since the age of nine was obvious enough.

"I prefer to play through the middle," he said. "Once I get into the box and am getting the chances, I have got faith in my ability. Before, I wasn't getting into the box because I wasn't playing too much as a striker and I had to worry about my defensive work. Arsenal is the place for me to advance my career and take me to the next level. With the magnificent players in midfield, I can run on to the end of those balls and slot them away."

It all sounded even more encouraging when Arsene Wenger immediately declared that Welbeck had the "perfect style" to play through the centre of his team. Yet fast-forward six months and, as Welbeck prepares for his return to Old Trafford on Monday, he might wonder how much has really changed. Yes, he is established as a valuable part of Arsenal's squad, just as he was at United under David Moyes and certainly Sir Alex Ferguson, but regularly starting matches in his preferred position is once again a distant possibility.

Since Olivier Giroud made his comeback in December from a broken foot, Welbeck has started just one game ahead of the Frenchman as the central focal point of the attack. He has not played in that position at all in 2015 and, with Arsenal having lost the only two games he started this year - against Tottenham and Monaco - it is far from certain that he will be involved in the FA Cup against his former club.

The thigh injury that Welbeck suffered against West Ham United over Christmas offers some recent mitigation but the bottom line is that, when he did get the chance to start 13 consecutive Premier and Champions League games before Christmas while Giroud was injured, he scored five times. It was not an outright failure but insufficient to prevent Giroud from reclaiming his status as the main striker.

The form of Harry Kane and Charlie Austin, as well as the return from injury of Daniel Sturridge, will also now put his starting place for England in jeopardy. It remains premature to dismiss Welbeck's long-term hopes of developing into a centre-forward, especially at the age of 24, but many fans of Manchester United will read all of this with a knowing sense of deja-vu.

Louis van Gaal had been blunt in his explanation for Welbeck's sale - "he doesn't have the record of Van Persie or Rooney and that is the standard" - and the statistics at Arsenal also underline why Wenger has gone back to Giroud.

According to Opta, Arsenal's win percentage stands at 68.2 per cent with Giroud in the team but falls to 50 per cent without him. The opposite is true of Welbeck. Arsenal have won 53.8 per cent of games with him in the team and 68.8 per cent without him.

Their respective goalscoring records are also striking. Giroud has played four less games but scored almost double Welbeck's tally of seven goals and also provided one extra assist. His minutes-to-goals ratio this season for Arsenal is 109.46 compared to Welbeck's 287.57.

Familiar doubts persist, then, about the reliability of Welbeck's finishing even when he has had more opportunity in his favoured role. There is still one big caveat. As Ferguson also recognised, Welbeck can offer more energy and defensive diligence than most strikers. This should be regarded as a strength rather than a hindrance to his wider ambitions and, provided he is contributing to the team, there is no reason to be overly perturbed by his goalscoring record.

Losing the "team" asset really would be serious and that is why his performance against Monaco was arguably more troubling than his failure to score more regularly.

Welbeck had been asked to start out wide on the right in that game but, to the very vocal frustration of Graeme Souness and Thierry Henry in the Sky Sports studio, kept drifting inside to restrict both Arsenal's width and the protection for Hector Bellerin.

"Danny Welbeck is a striker, he wants to play through the middle," said Souness. "When he is not getting the ball in wide areas, that is when he gets indisciplined. He starts to wander. In the first half, we are saying, 'Danny, please stay wide, please stay wide'."

Henry then told a story of how Pep Guardiola at Barcelona would tell him to "stay on the line" or else "come and sit with me and watch the game". It is perhaps instructive then that Welbeck has been no more than a very late substitute in the subsequent wins against Everton and Queens Park Rangers.

Wenger has also acknowledged that the other players, including Welbeck, are defined largely by Giroud being only able to play as the main central target man. Giroud's presence dictates those around him and Welbeck - the third most expensive player in Arsenal's history - remains an important member of what Wenger regards as his best overall attacking unit since the days of Henry. He will get further opportunities to develop as a striker.

With his pace and movement, Wenger also sees no reason why he cannot score more goals from out wide. "You can only select 11 - there is always a fight," said Wenger. "I think you have players on the flanks who score. [Cristiano] Ronaldo played all his life on the flanks. What is a problem for him is to play. You need the talent, but also you need to meet someone who believes in you and gives you a chance."

Wenger is a manager in the mould of a Ferguson when it comes to giving young players their chance but, equally, Welbeck has done little this season that will provoke regret in the mind of Van Gaal.


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