While the decision amongst the England fanbase as to whether Danny Welbeck is worthy of a starting place against Italy is almost unanimously against him, he still harbours the favour of the one man who really matters. Roy Hodgson looks likely to pick the Manchester United striker to fill a role on the left of midfield as England kick off their World Cup campaign on Saturday – a widely contested decision.
Welbeck hasn’t impressed consistently on the occasions he has played for United this season, and he hasn’t performed too much better when in the white of England. But while the form of Raheem Sterling has been far superior to that of Welbeck, there must be something Hodgson sees in him to keep him higher in the pecking order than his, ultimately, more talented teammates.
This something is widely thought to be down to Roy’s more conservative leanings – in the football, not political, sense. He’s renowned as a manager who tends to play it safe, and Welbeck presents a ‘safer’ option than Sterling. His reputation as a particularly dogged worker is opposite to the flamboyance of his colleagues.
One thing that must be made clear though, is that Welbeck is first and foremost a striker. His preferred role is as a ‘number nine’. With this in mind, he is a bigger misfit for the role than Sterling. Because of the belief that he constitutes a more secure option, that doesn’t make him any more of a defensive selection.
Numbers-wise, Sterling largely outstrips Welbeck defensively, but this is simply down to the fact he has had far more game time than the United man. But even when you whittle their statistics down to what they do per 90 minutes, Welbeck hardly fairs any better. For instance, Sterling makes 1.30 tackles per 90 minutes compared to Welbeck’s 0.98.
With the system Sterling has been incorporated in this season, he has had to shoulder his fair share of defensive responsibility. As Liverpool look to win the ball back in quick bursts, Sterling has become accustomed to harrying his opponents into mistakes. And even in games where Liverpool sat slightly deeper, using their superior speed on the counterattack, Sterling excelled as he won the ball back on numerous occasions in front of his back line before breaking at pace – such as away at Manchester United.
With the England squad containing so many more gifted players – in a technical sense – than they have had the privilege of in the past, it seems odd that Hodgson would opt for a player who doesn’t possess the same kind of abilities on the ball. Sterling attempts, and successfully completes, far more take-ons, draws more fouls, and creates far more chances than Welbeck.
While neither are defensive players, Welbeck is no more defensive than Sterling. But it is a mismatch between the two when it comes to attacking efficiency.
While you would expect Sterling to have better attacking figures, having played in a far better side last season, he has to shoulder his fair share of responsibility in defence alongside Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson, and thus the conjecture that he doesn’t contribute defensively is undair.
Ultimately, it feels as though Welbeck is considered a safer defensive option purely because he is less dangerous going forwards. Because Sterling provides so much in attack, there are reservations over the amount of work he puts in defensively. The statistics suggest that this is an unfair assumption, especially if compared to Welbeck.
Whilst selecting Welbeck ahead of Sterling may appear like an err on the side of caution, the numbers really don’t give any indication as to why this should be the case. Defensively, there aren’t any notable differences between the two, but in attack, it is hardly worth a discussion.