‘Stick by what we say every bloody time: Welbeck’s presence just makes England better. His ambition and desire is infectious, epitomised by the way he chased down a lost cause and robbed Emre Can of the ball in the second half. Welbeck did delay too long over his chance before the break, but his link-up play makes England tick. He’s Das Guy.’
Our description of Danny Welbeck’s contribution in England’s 3-2 win over Germany in March is typical – and not just because Daniel Storey felt the need to end with a weak pun. In a qualifying campaign often ridiculously ridiculed for the quality of opposition which enabled England’s cruise to the finals, one undoubted plus point was the form of Welbeck, the uber-reliable defensive forward happy to work, happy to track back, happy to follow instructions, happy – astonishingly, considering he is seen by many as a weak finisher – to score six goals in the first five games of the campaign. Like Dirk Kuyt but rather more handsome.
When Welbeck returned – for 71 minutes – against Germany in March, the 4-3-3 formation settled upon by Hodgson largely because it suited the labour-intensive style of the Arsenal forward looked perfect for England again. Where Raheem Sterling struggled against Spain, Welbeck thrived against Germany. He clearly feels comfortable in an England shirt and it feels comfortable watching him, safe in the knowledge that England’s left-back will never be exposed and the opposition right-back will never be left unharried.
There’s a reason why Alan Shearer consistently cites that game as the example Hodgson should be following; it’s the night it all threatened to come together for England, the night we wondered whether we could dream of more than a brave quarter-final exit. Eric Dier and Dele Alli were no longer options but almost-certain starters, Harry Kane scored as an England starter for the first time, Jamie Vardy came off the bench and England seamlessly switched to a dangerous-looking diamond. F*** the defence, we would just win every game 3-2.
Now, when Shearer suggests that formation, he puts Alli wide in Welbeck’s stead and brings Wayne Rooney into the middle. A small tweak? Hardly. Not when you are putting Alli, who has incidentally done little for England since the domestic season ended, into a position he has barely ever occupied for Tottenham, never mind England. With Adam Lallana on the other side, there’s a danger of there being no width except from the full-backs. Shearer is very quick to deflect blame from strikers playing in an unfamiliar system, but shoehorning Alli wide and asking him to ‘do a Welbeck’ is apparently no problem.
‘It may seem like an overstatement to some, but it is quite accurate to say Danny Welbeck’s knee injury, set to rule him out for nine months, could reshape everything Hodgson does this summer,’ wrote tactician Sam Tighe in May. It was not an overstatement; those who accuse Hodgson of not knowing his best shape and starting XI forget that his plans hit a massive bump in the road when Welbeck was ruled out. Should the loss of one player cause this kind of headache? Of course not, but England simply do not have another Welbeck.
Hodgson tried Vardy left and he tried a diamond with split strikers before settling on Sterling and Lallana as his wide players against Russia. It was imperfect but worked just about well enough against limited opposition to merit a repeat against Wales. Those who begin hysterical articles with sentences like ‘IS ROY HODGSON making this up as he goes along?’ appear to have very quickly forgotten that the England manager was so sure of his apparently half-baked plans that he stuck with the same line-up again. But those line-ups – and the one that followed against Slovakia – did not have a Welbeck or anybody approaching his level of reliability. Hodgson had hatched a plan but that plan was missing its key enabler.
Hodgson’s biggest gamble was not making six changes against Slovakia; that disappointing result has obscured a performance that deserved a first-half goal. No, his biggest gamble was not taking Andros Townsend when Welbeck was ruled out and instead clutching at the idea that Sterling would recover from a confidence-breaking six months. It’s forgivable that he found the Marcus Rashford story too tempting to ignore, but choosing Ross Barkley over Townsend was short-sighted. Barkley may well be the more talented footballer, but Townsend’s skill-set – honed under Rafa Benitez – of hard work, dynamism and goal threat is much closer to what Hodgson was missing in Welbeck.
The England side that started the clash with Slovakia on Monday had scored a grand total of two goals in qualifying for Euro 2016; it’s difficult to imagine that any other team at the tournament will go into any match with such a record. While agreeing that Hodgson did not help either himself or England by resting Rooney and pairing two half-fit central midfielders, he does have a genuine problem in the absence of Welbeck.
Which England player has the full wide forward set of working hard, linking with the midfield, ghosting into the middle and scoring goals? Only really Dat Guy. His absence should not be a reason for total failure but at least a little mitigation for the odd stumble in the dark. Dat Old Guy now needs to find an answer.