Welbeck can take over unreliant Robin's role
West Brom 0 Manchester Utd 3
Published 10/03/2014 | 02:30
The danger of committing a public show of defiance is the risk of being embarrassed when the other guy wins, so Robin van Persie will have had plenty to ponder as Manchester United's team bus headed up the M6 from the Hawthorns.
Danny Welbeck, meanwhile, will have been considering the opportunity that may now fall at his feet after providing justification for David Moyes' decision to replace Van Persie, and save him from a seemingly inevitable red card.
This was a big victory for United against Pepe Mel's struggling team, one which drew a line under the Champions League humiliation against Olympiakos in Athens 11 days earlier, but it may also prove to be a seminal moment in Moyes' reign as manager.
In December, Moyes admitted he had resisted the temptation to withdraw Van Persie during a home defeat against Newcastle United due to concerns over the reaction of the supporters.
However, with the Dutchman producing a display of petulance and frustration against Albion, the Scot chose to take him out of the action.
Moyes subsequently insisted: "I was always taking him off because he played 90 minutes for Holland in midweek. I actually told him in the hotel that I'd try to get him off at the right time."
Van Persie's reaction – a look of surprise and a shake of the head, after being told by referee Jon Moss that his number had been raised – suggested he was either not listening in the team hotel or, instead, he was using the moment to give a public face to the persistent speculation of his unhappiness and discontent – all consistently denied – under Moyes at United.
The 30-year-old had not performed well enough to question the decision but, if he was of the view that it was a mistake, Welbeck's introduction and the sudden upsurge of United's attacking threat suggested that Van Persie may be blunting his team's edge rather than sharpening it.
Van Persie had created Phil Jones' headed opener with a pinpoint set-piece delivery, but there was little else of note.
His movement was poor and lethargic, his touch heavy, yet Welbeck, albeit against a tiring defence, injected pace, purpose and a well-taken goal which completed the scoring after Wayne Rooney's earlier header.
So how does Moyes now react when he selects his team to play Liverpool next Sunday – United's last chance to prevent the old enemy bumping them out of the Champions League?
Does he stick with Van Persie and back the forward's proven quality to return or is Welbeck now in the frame to dislodge the man who delivered United's 20th league title last season?
Welbeck will never be the finisher that Van Persie is but there is consistent evidence that he can bring out the best in Rooney.
As Welbeck took up a far higher role at The Hawthorns, Rooney stepped up into a more advanced No 10 position, from where he immediately scored and then provided Welbeck with a divine goal of his own.
"We like Danny a lot," Moyes said in the aftermath. "(He's) a really good player. He got one and maybe could have had two. I have seen him starting to look a lot sharper in the last week or so. He has done very well."
The problem for Van Persie is that United's more cautious team, defending too deep, are not stretching defences in the way that creates the clear goalscoring chances he feeds on.
It's more muck and nettles for United and this 30-year-old striker, who is by no means the fastest, has been left to manufacture his own opportunities.
He hasn't fared well and that plainly frustrates him.
While Moyes ponders his next step, the options for change at Albion are far more slender, with the decision of the club to allow the now ousted Dave McDonough – a technical analyst who got above himself – to get Steve Clarke replaced by Pepe Mel, looking more astonishing by the day. Albion received no great recommendations from Spain about Mel.
Goalkeeper Ben Foster said that the players' plea with Mel to abandon his high-energy pressing style was not behind the intensity drop against United.
"You're not going to be able to play this lovely touch football (against United) because they always press so high," he said.
Nevertheless, Mel's philosophy was diluted and is irreparably damaged. Albion's best option would be to return responsibilities to caretaker Keith Downing.
Moyes' own grip on United is probably not strong enough for him to omit Van Persie next Sunday. The occasion is too great to move with the kind of boldness Alex Ferguson displayed in dropping Rooney from the United side that faced Real Madrid at Old Trafford a year ago last Wednesday.
Moyes' post-match optimism on Saturday was slightly overdone.
The central defensive pairing of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones – operating together for the first time in the Premier League – hardly displayed a stability to bear out the manager's suggestion that "the two boys today could easily be the two centre-backs for England in the World Cup".
But if he can get beyond the challenge on which his United future may depend – Liverpool, Olympiakos and Manchester City in nine days – then the options available to him in a world without Van Persie are greater than many might think.
If Rooney behind Welbeck looked a good spectacle on Saturday, then Juan Mata behind Rooney could be a pairing made in heaven. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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