“He played here for three seasons after Sunderland, but he doesn’t have the record of Van Persie or Rooney and that is the standard.”
Judging purely on numbers, it’s difficult to argue that Louis van Gaal made a mistake when he sold the man he repeatedly described as “not a line-up player” to Arsenal for £15m. Danny Welbeck had failed to break the 20-goal barrier in total over three seasons and his one start under Van Gaal had ended in that humiliating 4-0 defeat to MK Dons. ‘Had his chances but is unlikely to have convinced Van Gaal he’s worthy of a place,’ read his player rating in the Daily Mail..
The verdict was in: Not a line-up player. Not Wayne Rooney. Not Robin van Persie. Not Radamel Falcao. Not even James Wilson.
“Obviously people can say I’ve not scored enough goals, but you stick the best strikers on the wing in a four-man midfield and see if they score goals,” said the now-Arsenal striker after a Champions League hat-trick against Galatasaray. The narrative was written: Welbeck had proved Van Gaal wrong. And this was back when respect for Van Gaal’s decision-making was still the default.
Except that really wasn’t the point at which Welbeck had proved Van Gaal wrong. If anything, Welbeck proved Van Gaal right in his judgement of him as a non-scoring striker by ultimately struggling in that position in the Premier League, scoring only twice (against Aston Villa and Hull) in an extended run of games in his favoured position until Olivier Giroud’s return from injury in early December.
From there it was a familar tale of being pushed out wide, restricted to striker starts in the FA Cup, and then ultimately to a place on the bench as the Gunners found their momentum in March without Welbeck. Van Gaal was right: Not a line-up player, after all. And yet the lingering suspicion is that Welbeck the squad player (rather than the striker) would have been absolutely perfect for Van Gaal. Quick, disciplined, diligent, intelligent and a faultless follower of instructions – Welbeck is the photofit Van Gaal footballer he discarded based on his flaws as a striker.
Contrast Welbeck’s performance against Hull on Saturday with either of Manchester United’s wide players against Midtjylland on Thursday. It was typical Welbeck – tracking back into the full-back position when required, staying wide when the penalty area was congested, driving forward into rare pockets of space, making intelligent off-the-ball runs, throwing in the occasional moment of technical skill that seems to jar with his awkward limbs. He rarely lost the ball, rarely lost his position, rarely made a poor decision. Van Gaal is a man who talks often of training brains; when he sold Welbeck, he lost a player with the potential to be his teacher’s pet.
If Van Gaal instructed Welbeck never to take a first-time shot, Welbeck would never take a first-time shot. If Van Gaal told Welbeck to always be available to the central midfielder for a pass, Welbeck would always be available to the central midfielder for a pass. It’s not just Welbeck’s impressive international goals record that makes him a Roy Hodgson favourite; he is truly a managers’ player.
Luckily for Welbeck, who is now returning to strengthen an Arsenal squad competing for the Premier League title, Van Gaal judged him on his below-standard goals record. Had he digged deeper, he might have clung on for dear life.