Much-maligned Manchester United forward Danny Welbeck hits like a spoonful of outdated Marmite; many hate him, others are prepared to abide him, but nobody loves him or particularly enjoys the experience.
The 23 year-old draws many comparisons another controversial England forward – Emile Heskey. Not only because both attackers attempt make up for their glaring inadequacies in front of goal by asserting their physicality whenever possible, but because both have emerged as favourites of Three Lions managers seemingly without ever justifying such coveted status at club level.
But tomorrow night, Welbeck has the opportunity for redemption. England face Italy in their opening World Cup fixture, a result which will set the precedent for the Three Lions’ two remaining matches in Group D. In other words, losing to the Azzurri is not an option, unless England’s shaky defence is prepared to take its chances against two of Europe’s hottest strikers in Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez.
If we are to beat Cesare Prandelli’s men, lessons will have to be learned from Euro 2012, where Italy knocked out England in the quarter-finals. Losing in a penalty shootout might initially spur emotions and hypotheses of the Three Lions once again coming undone by some great act of fate, but in truth, from the opening minute to the final whistle, the Italians had us firmly pinned against the ropes.
At the heart of that dominant display was Andrea Pirlo, who finished the match with more touches of the ball than the entire England midfield and was named UEFA’s Man of the Match. Like a fine wine, the 35 year-old’s abilities as the world’s best deep-lying playmaker have only improved since he last faced the Three Lions two years ago. In that time, the bearded maestro has claimed two Serie A titles with Juventus and won the division’s Player of the Year award.
Unless Roy Hodgson elects a player to shackle Pirlo in his pocket of space in front of the defence, as Manchester United famously did in 2010 whilst he was still at AC Milan, it will be groundhog day for England. The Italian international applies an amusing tone when discussing how Park Ji Sung shadowed and stalked him that night in his recently released autobiography, referring to him as a ‘nuclear-powered electron’, but there’s no doubt the South Korean had the desired effect; United went on to claim a 7-2 aggregate victory over the San Siro side.
In truth, there are many candidates amongst the England squad for that unique role. The renowned industriousness of Wayne Rooney and James Milner verges upon cliché, Phil Jones’ ability to mark specific individuals out of games has earned the Red Devils valuable wins on big occasions before, and despite natural assumptions otherwise, Raheem Sterling boasts an impressive defensive statistic of 1.3 tackles per match for Liverpool this season, even used as a right wing-back by Brendan Rodgers on occasion.
But to cast your mind back to last season, of all the talent on the Old Trafford roster, Sir Alex Ferguson chose Danny Welbeck to man-mark Xabi Alonso during a Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid – a player who may offer greater defensive awareness and forcefulness, but essentially shares the same quarterback role as Pirlo in the Los Blancos starting XI.
That match will be mostly remembered for Nani’s controversial red card which quickly decided the outcome. But whilst all 22 men were still on the pitch, it was Welbeck in his delicately-designed dual role that had the biggest impact.
The England international understood the job at hand perfectly; he not only removed Alonso from the game, continually refusing him the time required to pick out those trademark 40-yard through balls, but going forward he made runs off the Spaniard’s back, exploiting the space left behind.
The combined effect left Alonso concentrating more on what was going on behind him than in front of him – if Welbeck can make Pirlo do the same tomorrow evening, the chances of England taking all three points against Italy will dramatically improve.
Of course, there are gaps in the theory – handing the 23 year-old a more central role would require removing Wayne Rooney from his customary No.10 position, shifting him to a less influential capacity on the wing or even dropping him completely. Likewise, although I believe taking Pirlo out of the game is a necessity for England, remodelling the starting XI to facilitate for the quality of a single player can leave us open to less foreseen threats – let’s not forget that the Azzurri squad includes such talents as Mario Balotelli, Claudio Machisio, Marco Veratti, Antonio Cassano and relative unknown Circo Immobile, all of whom are potential match-winners.
But in terms of athleticism, work-rate and tactical understanding, Welbeck is by far the strongest candidate at Roy Hodgson’s disposal. If Park Ji Sung was a nuclear-powered electron, the United forward is at least a Duracell bunny plugged into the mains.