Danny Welbeck proving his worth

by Ciaran Kelly

Danny_Welbeck_2480494bA magnificent leap, a pinpoint header into the corner of the net, a customary point to the name on the back of his shirt and a ‘come at me’ gesture to the disbelieving capacity of the Santiago Bernabéu.

No, this was not the already well-documented brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo’s equaliser in the 30th minute; it was the birth of Danny Welbeck on the continental stage.

The Englishman, netting just his second goal in 30 appearances this season, was fantastic in the Bernabéu: offering Sir Alex Ferguson the commitment (forced off only through cramp on 73 minutes) and tactical discipline that the Scot has sought throughout his 27 years at Old Trafford.

From Mike Phelan to Park Ji-Sung, Ferguson has always had a soft spot for selflessness and even with the arrival of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani, Ashley Young and, imminently, Wilfried Zaha, this preference is unlikely to change in big games in the future.

After all, to resist calling on the prolificacy and near-unrivalled movement of Javier Hernandez during the match was a big decision by Ferguson, even if deploying the Mexican against such formidable opposition would be a massive risk.

This reflects the fact that calculated, rather than all-out, caution has become a hallmark of Ferguson’s tactics away in Europe in recent years – a farcry from the naive, gung-ho tactics Ferguson deployed in the Champions League in 1994 , 1995 and 1997.

Still, with Ferguson believing Welbeck is continuing to develop and mature physically, more instances of the 22 year old unnerving usually sound set-piece markers like Sergio Ramos could become even more commonplace.

However, there is more to Welbeck than being simply a lanky water-carrier and harrier, even if his immense on the field determination is reflected in the Englishman overcoming the debilitating and inhibitive Osgood-Schlatter growth disease.

Welbeck, after all, is blessed with often underrated big-game nous and fantastic technique.

As a result, despite a fairly poor return of 32 goals in 133 games for club and country so far in his career, Welbeck has still netted against the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal (twice, separately), Everton and Sweden (twice, separately).

This is why Ferguson, despite the fact that Robin van Persie was on his way, was so eager to award Welbeck a five-year contact towards the end of last August.

After all, keeping Dimitar Berbatov out of the team – given his brilliance for Fulham this season – was no mean feat and even though Hernandez had a fairly average campaign in 2011/2012, complacency never gripped Welbeck’s focus or effort as a Manchester United starter.

This is why Ferguson has been so loyal to the Englishman as even though he has undergone an undoubted goal drought in 2012/2013, Welbeck’s head has never gone down when called upon and his immense performance in the 2-1 victory against Liverpool on 13 January, 2013 heralded a renewed run of good performances.

2233853022Roy Hodgson took note and even though Welbeck looked somewhat out of place on the left-wing for England against Brazil on 6 February a month later, he still put in a classy performance in linking play and has, ironically, benefited in this sense since Robin van Persie’s arrival in August.

Over time, too, his still-developing final ball will improve.

So, while some players would have shrieked under this ‘banishment’, Welbeck already has more assists (seven) for club and country than he did for the whole of last season (five).

Admittedly, this may seem marginal – particularly offset to his flagging goalscoring – and while many United fans would prefer to see their hometown boy improve on his one in three (12 in 39) return from last season, Welbeck’s development as an all-round player may, actually, make him an even more valuable option for Ferguson.

After all, how many strikers in world football can compare with the name, achievements and goalscoring return of not only Wayne Rooney but, also, van Persie?

Doing what the likes of Phil Neville, John O’Shea, Alan Smith (but for serious injuries) and Ryan Giggs selflessly did in recent years under Ferguson will only see Welbeck’s tactical discipline and all-round game improve immensely.

There is no doubting that fact as while there were doubts about whether Welbeck could make the first-team grade – partly reflected in him horribly missing a penalty on his unofficial first-team debut on the pre-season tour to Saudi Arabia in January, 2008 and broken promises from Ferguson about first-team inclusion in 2007/2008 – Welbeck truly came of age on loan at Sunderland in 2010/2011.

Rather than being the leggy forward with pace but, seemingly, little else, Welbeck proved his top-level credentials at the Black Cats: encapsulated in a magnificent, dominant and prophetic performance in the 0-3 victory over Chelsea on 14 November, 2010.

Possessing greatly effective link-up play, dominating in the air, working the channels to great effect and displaying the deftness so few English forwards are armed with, Welbeck gave Chelsea’s makeshift, but international, central defence of Paulo Ferreira and, particularly, Branislav Ivanovic a torrid time.

This kind of skillset served England well at Euro 2012, with Welbeck’s selflessness (often isolated) and remarkably mature leading of the line pivotal to England’s decent performances against France, Ukraine and Sweden in Group D.

Perhaps, it was no coincidence that when Welbeck was substituted for Andy Carroll on 60 minutes against Italy in the quarter-finals, England’s gameplan suffered and they panicked: flinging long balls at, rather than to, Carroll.

Admittedly, though, the age-old argument returned during the first-half of that night: does Welbeck possess the clinical instincts to lead the line and be a prolific international centre forward?

Perhaps, Welbeck’s re-deployment to the flanks has answered that but that should not detract from his ability and the fact that, seemingly, he has found a position where he can continue his career development at the still-tender age of 23.

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