Following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, this season has felt like one long wait for some transformative individual to spark off a grand revival under David Moyes. In the summer, it seemed as though such a player would arrive from the transfer market as talk of Cesc Fabregas and Ander Herrera swirled about the gossip columns.
Later, it was the turn of a rejuvenated Wayne Rooney and newly emerged Adnan Januzaj to take on the role of potential messiahs. Come January, Juan Mata stepped out of a helicopter and onto the pedestal of being hailed as the playmaker who would singlehandedly reinspire the team back to their title-challenging best.
Yet the all-star quartet of Rooney, Januzja and Mata, completed by last year’s catalyst Robin van Persie, is yet to deliver on the hype that preceded its assembly. Rather than clawing back United’s season and lost prestige, they have been found wanting as a collective, their impotency brutally exposed in Liverpool’s 3-0 win at Old Trafford.
But if these celebrated names aren’t answers to United’s attacking dilemma, who is?
It seems strange, given the presence of Rooney and van Persie, to suggest that this foursome lack a striker, yet that is precisely what was missing against Martin Skrtel & Co. For all the fluidity in the attacking third—players dropping deep, switching sides and roaming into the centre—there was surprisingly little movement going forward to actually challenge Liverpool’s defenders. No one was making the necessary runs for Mata and others to feed.
Substituted on for van Persie in the previous game against West Bromwich Albion, Danny Welbeck added some much needed pace and selflessness off-the-ball to stretch the defence at the Hawthorns. Perhaps Moyes had hoped his first choice Dutch striker might have observed his replacement’s impact, working the channels and providing an outlet on the shoulder of his markers?
Any such observations must have passed by van Persie, who continued to play more like a creator than a finisher against Liverpool, much like Rooney. And Januzaj. And Mata. With so many parallels being made between United’s current plight and Liverpool’s fall from grace (and perch), it’s tempting to suggest that the on-field comparisons are being made with the wrong club. Given the number of players wanting to play playmaker and add another pass rather than go direct for goal, it could be said that United’s attack has contracted Arsenal-it is; a strain of the North Londoners at their dithering worst.
Of course, the counter-argument for Welbeck as the remedy to this malaise is that for a centre forward he doesn’t score enough, and that remains a fair criticism even with his improved strike rate this season. For all the pain it may cause, it’s worth looking again at the chief antagonists of United’s demise on Sunday for an unlikely source of hope: Daniel Sturridge.
Underplayed at Manchester City and under loved at Chelsea, he has flourished having been given the platform at Liverpool. Similarly, it may be time to throw Welbeck into a more regular role as soon as possible, if only to ensure he is a sharper finisher for next season and the seasons ahead. For while his finishing needs improvement, he is already a supremely intelligent footballer for his age, with a wonderfully imaginative style to his game. If he can add a solid scoring record to his abilities, he’ll once again come to overshadow his Anfield-based international teammate.
Yet Welbeck’s value will always lie in more than just finding the back of the net. He has always worked hard, chasing down defenders and pressing from the front, not least in the two-legged Champions League tie against Real Madrid last season. It’s become cliché to label the less heralded products of United’s academy for their “big game” mentalities, it was always an indelible hallmark of almost every Ferguson-era graduate, Welbeck included.
Around a decade prior to those clashes against Madrid, Sir Alex told a post-match press conference that he thought Raul was the best in the world after the Spaniard helped his side to a 3-1 home win. That team alone featured the likes of Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane but Ferugson wasn’t mistaken. Welbeck may never reach a similar calibre to Madrid’s legendary striker but he can replicate his importance to anothr star-studded line-up.
Throwing him on after 75 minutes of indecision against Liverpool wasn’t enough. In the land of the No. 10’s, a No. 9 is king, and to borrow a phrase from a former red: Welbz is dat guy.