Louis van Gaal’s anticipated great cull is yet to take place at Manchester United.
Anderson, Marouane Fellaini, Javier Hernandez, Wilfried Zaha, Shinji Kagawa, Anders Lindegaard and Nick Powell were all expected to be hastily moved on this summer, but we are yet to see significant progress and with just four days of the transfer window remaining, there’s a good chance the Old Trafford gaffer will be stuck with them until January at the earliest.
One player however who looks increasingly likely to leave the Carrington club before September 1st, rather surprisingly, is winger-forward Danny Welbeck. The 4-0 defeat to MK Dons is expected to be his last appearance as a Red Devil – he, van Gaal and Ryan Giggs had ‘a conversation’ last week, assumedly over his future and assumedly not a particularly positive one.
But in my opinion, relinquishing the 23 year-old this summer would be a fatal mistake, not least because, Danny Welbeck epitomises everything good about the old Manchester United.
Perhaps he doesn’t parallel the quality of his many world-class predecessors on the left side of United’s attack, and admittedly, 26 goals in 117 Premier League appearances is a rather disappointing return for an international forward.
It’s no great challenge to pick holes in specific performances for club and country, and one can rightly doubt whether Welbeck would ever feature more than in a bit-part role for United – his athleticism used to defend from the front in important games, his pace and poaching occasionally called upon against the Premier League’s more rank-and-file sides to give Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie a rest.
But look past Welbeck’s consistencies – of which, there are quite a few – and he is the personification of the Sir Alex Ferguson ethos. Perhaps that’s why the retired Scot issued the England international 40 appearances during his final season at Old Trafford, despite him finding the net on just two occasions. Perhaps that’s why Louis van Gaal, amid his mission to instigate drastic, unprecedented philosophical changes at United, feels that Welbeck’s presence has become an issue.
First of all, Welbeck is English, which may seem like superficial and pragmatic point. But Ferguson constantly infused his own side with the national team, for the same reasons Arsene Wenger is now attempting to do the same. The 2010 Spain side had six players from Barcelona, the 2014 Germany side contained six players from Bayern Munich – synergy is important for both club and country and the positive effects are expected to eventually go full circle.
Furthermore, that intrinsic bond with the Three Lions gave United their sense of identity – their blend of hard-working, counter-attacking and clinical football encapsulates the key characteristics of the English game. Ferguson thought this was so important that he invested £27million in Phil Jones and Chris Smalling in the space of two transfer windows. He also once threw £25million at a then-19 year-old Wayne Rooney, assuring United have a player at the heart of the national team for at least the next decade.
Welbeck isn’t the only England international in the United squad, but with the exception of Wayne Rooney and the now-retired Michael Carrick, he’s been by far the most predominant in the Three Lions fold over the last few years. A return of 8 goals in 26 is a decent contribution for England, and Roy Hodgson has continually maintained faith in the 23 year-old even when United appearances have been hard to come by.
Secondly, Danny Welbeck is frighteningly quick – in fact, physically, he’s a walking definition of the perfect footballer, giving even Cristiano Ronaldo a run for his money. You can once again question the triviality of this, but if there’s one core difference between United now and the United that used to win back-to-back Premier League titles, it’s undoubtedly the absence of a consistent threat in-behind.
Whether Louis van Gaal could find a role for Welbeck in his 3-4-1-2 formation – despite his versatility as an attacker – is open to debate. His defensive game is not up to the standards of a wing-back, his link-up play is good, but not imaginative enough to play at No.10, and the chances of anyone usurping Robin van Persie or Wayne Rooney as United’s front two remains exceptionally slim.
That being said, Welbeck gives van Gaal options. United struggled to stretch both Sunderland and Swansea in their two opening fixtures but the England international, whether he’s on the pitch for nine minutes or ninety, is more than capable of doing that. Indeed, an injection of pace could well be the missing ingredient, considering how vital Arjen Robben was tactically for the Netherlands at the World Cup.
Thirdly and most importantly, Welbeck is a grafter. John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Nicky Butt, Phil Neville and Park Ji-Sung, to name a few, were never the most talented of players but their personalities, their undying determination and their obedience to Ferguson was as intrinsic to United’s Premier League dominance as the world-class qualities of their flagship stars. Welbeck firmly belongs to this category, all the more so considering he’s a genuine product of the Carrington academy.
The 23 year-old has United in his blood. If Ferguson were to draw an annotated diagram of the perfect Red Devil, it would closely resemble him; quick, resilient, dangerous in front of goal and deadly on the break, young, determined and unquestionably loyal. It’s a new era at Old Trafford and quite clearly, Louis van Gaal wants intrinsic changes. But the heart of the Red Devils must remain the same and there must be some sense of continuity between new and old regimes.
Furthermore, for a player that has such a marmite effect on the English public, the long list of suitors for Welbeck that have emerged over the last week is an enormous testament to the forward’s talents and utility. With Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Everton, Newcastle, Hull and Sunderland all linked to his signature, the situation reminds me of Theo Walcott’s in January 2013 when he had just six months left on his Gunners contract and was holding out for a better deal.
The enormity of clubs attracted to the 25 year-old changed perceptions of him, eradicating the myth that blistering pace made him a one-trick pony. And I believe that, in a likewise manner, moving clubs would positively change opinions on Welbeck too.
But that sway of opinion would come too late for Manchester United. Here’s a player who epitomises the ethos of the club and many of van Gaal’s own ideals. For the Red Devils and for England, I stand firm that Welbeck still has an important role to play.
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