Welbeck proving why he has the trust of Ferguson
Danny Welbeck is England’s best chance of a proper all-round centre-forward emerging. Physically, he’s a considerable talent – his stamina is obvious, his jumping ability is hugely impressive and sprinting style is remarkably upright, with quick, mechanical arm thrusts. In fact, his arms are always in action – Welbeck throws them out dramatically to steady himself for shots, and is constantly reaching back, holding off defenders.
But when you see him up close off the pitch, Welbeck’s physical appearance is much less obvious. He’s slender rather than well-built. The more you watch his game, the more you realise he’s simply intelligent at using his body, and clever with his positioning and movement.
There’s something very careful about Welbeck’s play – he’s not an overwhelmingly incisive passer, but the manner in which he plays the ball suggests precision and care, overtly opening up his body to use the inside of his foot. When on loan at Sunderland he would frequently go the entire match without conceding possession, which nicely complemented his pure poacher of a strike partner Darren Bent.
“I don’t want to be a static centre-forward who just sniffs out goals in the six-yard box,” Welbeck once said. “I see the game moving on… I don’t want to just score goals, I want to create chances for my team. I can drop off, move wide, link up.”
He’s continued this style since returning to Manchester United – his pass completion rate of 86 per cent is the best of any forward in the Premier League, level with Leon Osman and slightly ahead of Tottenham’s Sandro – both players famed for their ball retention skills.
He’s good in the air, but the goals he scores with his feet are also very delicate. His superb backheel against Sweden at Euro 2012 was a good example, as was the neat curler in the 4-4 draw against Everton last season. A neat step inside a defender was followed by a swift flick of his right foot, sending the ball perfectly towards the top corner. But more impressive than the technique was Welbeck’s initial movement – he naturally positioned himself on the penalty spot, ready for a cross. Upon realising both Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes had taken up the same position, Welbeck dropped 10 yards deeper into a pocket of space – the goal came as a result of that intelligence.
Footballing intelligence is very different from academic intelligence, but Welbeck is one of England’s brighter footballers, achieving an A in his English Literature and Maths GCSEs. Just a few months after getting those results, he was named in United’s squad to face Manchester City. “I’m bringing the boy Welbeck in,” Sir Alex Ferguson said in his pre-match press conference. “We think he’s got the temperament.”
Tellingly, that was Ferguson’s first thought – not Welbeck’s physical or technical characteristics, but his maturity in a mental sense. It’s why Welbeck has been deployed in a variety of tactical roles, including his superb man-marking job on Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso this week, where he refused to allow the Spanish midfielder space to hit his customary long, diagonal balls. Typically, Welbeck also charged past on the counter-attack as effectively as any Manchester United player, and was unquestionably their best performer over the two legs.
The reasons for Wayne Rooney’s absence on Tuesday night can be debated at length, but it feels like Ferguson didn’t trust him. He can certainly trust Welbeck – a tactically intelligent player within matches, and a hard worker in training.
Welbeck ranks shooting practice as his favourite part of training, so he’ll be happy to learn he probably needs to do more of it – just one league goal in 2012-13 is a poor return. But goalscoring ability can come with time, as his strike partner Robin van Persie has shown. Welbeck isn’t yet close to his peak, but he’s already an extremely valuable member of Ferguson’s squad.
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