All’s Welbeck That Ends Welbeck

Danny Welbeck arrived at Arsenal as a 23 year old with a reputation as a solid, tactically aware forward whose finishing lacked the sort of ruthlessness one would associate with a top level striker. His signing had a slightly lukewarm feel to it- Arsenal rushed through his signature after Olivier Giroud had injured his ankle a few days earlier.

It is well known that the Gunners initially only wanted Welbeck on loan before signing off on a permanent deal. The transfer was conducted while Arsene Wenger was out of the country and Welbeck was already at London Colney training with England. Almost four years on and there is little to suggest that Danny’s reputation has grown at the club, nor does it sound like there’s an emphatic, mutual resolution to renew his contract which expires in 2019.

In some respects, the England forward has been pretty unfortunate. Every time he has threatened to become the club’s first choice centre forward, he has suffered with injury. Long term afflictions on both knees would upset any player’s rhythm. That said, until this season, Welbeck has played for Arsenal during a pretty fallow period in their history striker wise.

Olivier Giroud was good without ever threatening to smash the glass ceiling into greatness and, in any case, he didn’t entirely suit Arsenal’s style. The Frenchman became more clinical during his Gunners tenure, fine tuning his finishing. Welbeck’s mobility made him a better fit tactically, but he looks no more confident in front of goal than he did when he arrived in North London.

Much like his United career, he has flattered to deceive in front of goal. A Champions League hat-trick against Galatasaray in October 2014 ought to have been a platform to build on, but instead it represented a false dawn. Ditto a fairytale injury time header against Leicester in February 2016. It looked like a goal that would see Arsenal cruise to the league title and redeem Welbeck as a top class striker after a prolonged injury lay off.

Those eventualities may well have transpired in a pleasing parallel universe, where John Terry lives out existence as a sock puppet and Spurs were taken over by Trotters Independent Trading. But in this universe, they fizzled out and live on only in our fevered imaginations.

None of this is to say that Welbeck has not been a useful player for Arsenal. Welbeck tends to be liked by his coaches because he responds well to stimulus and instruction. Of course, this begs the question as to whether Arsenal was a good career choice for him. Danny is a player that thrives on structure- give him a specific job and he will get his elbows plenty greasy carrying it out.

His better Arsenal performances have tended to arise in games where the team are a little more disciplined. In the 2017 FA Cup Final, he was (we assume) given a brief to harry Chelsea’s defence from the front, to prevent David Luiz from passing progressively out from the back and stopping Nemanja Matic from getting time and space in his own half.

Welbeck was a constant nuisance, also testing the legs of Cahill, Luiz and Azpilicueta with his tireless running. That said, he also missed two presentable chances during the first half, making it a fairly Welbeckian performance. His series of scuffs and miskicks at the sharp end of the field have become a personal trope during his time at the club- so much so that his name has virtually become a verb in its own right.

Welbeck
verb
1.to succeed felicitously. To score a goal in the game of association football through an unintended act, or with an unusual body part.
“the cross came in and the striker Welbecked it into the goal with his arse.”

Welbeck can be a useful wide forward because of his industry, but also because of his tactical intelligence. Usually, he understands when to hold the width of the pitch and when to drift in field. As a player, he is something of a sponge, he tends to recognise the qualities of his attacking colleagues, which means he has formed effective partnerships.

In many ways, he is a casualty of the move away from two striker systems in top level football. In old money, he would probably have made a good second striker a la Emile Heskey. Heskey is unfairly remembered as a joke figure for his unflattering goalscoring record, but he made a fantastic partner for more prolific strikers, moulding his game to suit their movements.

I think Danny is in a similar category. In Arsenal’s current setup, he has struggled as the season has worn on. With the likes of Wilshere, Iwobi, Özil and even Mkhitaryan as mainstays in the attacking midfield positions, the Gunners have more creators than they do goalscorers.

Welbeck, for my money, has not been able to thrive in this environment, where there is a greater need for a scorer than a facilitator. If the pursuit of the likes of Benzema and Vardy hadn’t already given him the hint that Arsene was not really sold on Welbeck as a reliable central striker, then the signings of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang ought to have.

Yet it is the sale of Theo Walcott that has represented Welbeck’s best opportunity to establish himself as a first XI pick. Arsenal desperately lack wide forwards. At the moment, Alex Iwobi is probably the only natural wide player in the entire squad, save for Reiss Nelson (and even with Iwobi, it’s debatable). Arsene currently plays with creative interiors in the wide forward positions.

What Arsenal have really lacked is goal threat and Walcott has not really been properly replaced in this respect. A well balanced front three ordinarily contains one wide creator and one wide striker. The role of wide striker is very much up for grabs, but it is an opportunity Webeck has yet to grasp. The manager has hinted that Aubameyang is closer to playing that role than Welbz.

Ultimately, Welbeck’s lack of ruthlessness will probably see this position pass him by too. (Though diving for and converting a penalty against Milan recently was a pleasing delve into the dark side). With Özil and any combination of Mkhitaryan, Wilshere and Iwobi behind him, Welbeck could fill a wide striker slot, but as yet, he hasn’t been able to do it for the same reason that he hasn’t been able to convince anybody that he is a first choice centre forward.

In a team with a greater need for assertiveness in front of goal, Welbeck’s nuisance factor is losing value. With just over a year left to run on his contract, there is very little rumour of an extension and I would be surprised were he still an Arsenal player in August. Unfulfilled promise has been a motif of his career and at this stage, he would probably be better off playing one rung down on the Premier League ladder, in a team that relies on compactness, tactical savvy and the counter attack.

Alas, Arsenal and Danny Welbeck just haven’t quite clicked.

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Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available for pre-order here.