Danny Welbeck has found this campaign tough going so far, struggling with a lack of playing time which has had the inevitable knock-on effect on his form and match fitness, so with his progress undeniably stalling, what is the best course of action to take regarding his future at Old Trafford?
Last season was a real breakthrough year for the 22-year-old as he established himself in the United starting line-up after a successful loan spell away at Sunderland the year before while also making a name for himself with the national team at Euro 2012. His form for England, to the tune of five goals in 14 appearances, plus numerous other lively displays, mark him out as a rare player who seems to perform better for his country than he does his club at the moment.
Nevertheless, nine Premier League goals in 30 appearances last season was a sound return for a young player and his goal against Manchester City in the 3-2 away win back in January pointed to a man capable of going up a class, with a fantastic curled shot right into the top corner. It seems that Welbeck has taken over the role that Dimitar Berbatov played in the squad last term, though, and after Javier Hernandez’s fine recent form these past couple of months he’s currently fourth-choice in the pecking order.
The club’s summer transfer business of bringing in both Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa has afforded Ferguson plenty of attacking options and he has regularly switched between formations as a result – 4-3-3, 4-4-1-1, 4-5-1 and 4-4-2 – and yet Welbeck has made just seven starts in the league, three in Europe and two cup outings, the meagre return of which has seen him score just a solitary goal in 22 appearances overall.
After being linked with a loan move to top flight strugglers Reading this month, the club’s manager Brian McDermott moved to deny any such deal had been put in place, telling reporters: “I can’t see Sir Alex Ferguson sending Danny out to any club. I don’t know where this has come from, it’s got nothing to do with me. Welbeck’s a great player and I’m sure Sir Alex Ferguson thinks he’s a great player too. Everyone in the country thinks that.”
The forward is certainly highly rated and after his performances last year for the club, it looked as if a promising long-term future awaited him at United, and it still might, but the presence of van Persie appears to be blocking any path to the starting eleven and having an impact on his development; a loan move away now, while it may be advisable from the player’s perspective, would surely signify a backwards step at the same time, but the fact that it’s even a realistic option tells you everything you need to know about his season so far.
There are still those that remain somewhat unconvinced by Welbeck’s ability, and at times he can appear gangly and awkward on the ball, selfish in certain situations and lacking a killer touch in front of goal. On the flip side of that coin, he’s a versatile and tactically flexible player, while simultaneously being an instinctive finisher with an exceptional work ethic. It’s perhaps this very versatility which saw him granted so many first-team opportunities last season that is holding him back this term. He is not one to complain about his role in the side, so there’s a sense that he’s easy to take for granted. He will take that unforgiving role in a front three to drag defenders around with his movement, never getting a sniff of the action near goal.
The set-up of the side has been built entirely around van Persie, which has impacted on the positional futures of Rooney and Kagawa to an extent, while Nani has found playing time more and more difficult to come by. It’s clear that Ferguson simply has too many attacking options at his disposal to be able to fit them all into one side, even with rotation, yet he’s gone on the record before as stating that he believes having four strikers is essential for any title-winning side, just like he did in the past with Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
There’s a danger that despite being worth his weight in goals, that van Persie is having a destabilising effect on some of the squad’s other players with Ferguson reluctant to veer away his first-choice for any length of time. It will always be the Dutchman and one other and he enjoys a status that none of his forwards enjoyed last year, hence why Welbeck is seeing his chances to impress limited, restricted to cameo appearances off the bench. There’s simply less give and take in the starting eleven at the moment than in the past.
Welbeck has always seemed like an absolutely lovely chap off the pitch and he comes across as an enthusiastic and infectious presence in interviews; he clearly loves his job and feels lucky to be doing it and any suspicion of arrogance that dogged his early United career should be seen as little more than being eager to impress and perhaps trying to do too much. I say this because he seems a loyal character and it’s doubtful that he’ll agitate for a move anytime soon.
Ferguson has always had a fine tradition of balancing his squads with hungry young local players and some of Europe’s top talents; a strand of Real Madrid’s ‘Zidanes y Pavones’ policy, but it seems to work here in England predominantly because of the man at the helm and his sheer force of character. For every Rooney there is a Fletcher, for every van Persie a Smalling and it seems that Welbeck, whereas last season it looked as if he was going to be part of the reputation-enhancing bracket, has sadly slipped back into the back-up option one instead.
It’s too early to be talking about permanent moves away and Ferguson will not want to let him go, even with a healthy seven point lead over rivals Manchester City at the top of the table, so as callous as it sounds, he is simply going to have to be patient and do more damage when he does get the chance to impress.
His stock has significantly fallen and his development flat-lined so far this season, but the team is bigger than any one player, and just so long as it continues to thrive with van Persie at its spearhead, players like Welbeck will simply have to adjust.