At shortly before 9am on Tuesday, only eight hours after Danny Welbeck’s £16 m move from Manchester United to Arsenal had been officially confirmed, the first verdict arrived from a former team-mate.
Welbeck is a top signing for Arsenal,” Rio Ferdinand said. “If he gets that trust to be No1 striker at AFC he will flourish and explode.”
Ferdinand’s opinion deserves respect. He has trained day in, day out with Welbeck for six seasons and, during six years before that, saw him develop at first hand from gangly schoolboy into full England international. Welbeck, though, still divides opinion like few other Premier League footballers. A cursory glance at Twitter during the past 48 hours would instantly tell you that.
The reservations of both Arsenal and Manchester United fans can be summed up by a dressing-room anecdote from Welbeck’s time at Old Trafford. Before their Champions League tie against Bayern Munich earlier this year, United’s coaching staff had apparently made a particular point of stressing to their players that they had identified a fault in Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
It was explained that he had a tendency to jump early when one-on-one with an opponent. “Shoot low,” was the instruction. And so, with the score still 0-0, what did Welbeck do after breaking clear on Neuer’s goal? He tried an audacious chip that was easily smothered after Neuer had, indeed, began to jump even before the shot was taken.
Welbeck’s scoring record at United – 29 goals in 142 games – will be further cited as conclusive evidence of his erratic finishing. Yet there was still a tangible sense of regret and disappointment on Tuesday among a sizeable section of United fans. This was not just because a local lad had been sold but an acknowledgement that Welbeck had never really had the regular chance to play as a central striker, that his best years were still ahead of him, that he was a tireless team player and that it was senseless to strengthen a direct rival.
The case of Welbeck’s close friend, Daniel Sturridge, is potentially also instructive. Like Welbeck at United, Sturridge was rarely trusted to play in his preferred position at either Manchester City or Chelsea.
He became peripheral and, when he left in search of first-team football, it was easy to justify the sale. Sturridge scored six times in 32 games at Manchester City and then 24 in 96 at Chelsea. It made for a ratio of less than a goal every four games. Welbeck’s strike-rate of just over a goal every five games is almost identical.
Also almost identical is the age at which they have started a new chapter in their careers. Sturridge was 23 – the same age as Welbeck now – when he moved to Liverpool and has subsequently rewarded Brendan Rodgers’s faith with 36 goals in 52 matches. It has been a threefold improvement. “I’ve grown up with Welbs and I think he’s unbelievably talented,” Sturridge says. “We’ve been in similar situations, both wanting to play centrally but being on the wing. Mentally, it plays with you sometimes.”
The question, then, is whether Welbeck can be similarly transformed at Arsenal. Welbeck certainly fits Arsène Wenger’s preferred profile of player. He is at an ideal age for a striker, he is versatile in providing options across the front three positions and he is British. That last point is surprisingly significant.
After Cesc Fabregas, Gaël Clichy, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie all left, Wenger consciously decided to rebuild his squad around a core of young British players. The thinking was that they were more likely to remain loyal to a project that might not always offer the highest wages. Hence the faith that has also been shown recently – in both good times and bad – to Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The signing of Calum Chambers represents further evidence of a strategy that was once so perfectly implemented at United by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Indeed, if any two moments suggested a clear shift at United from a club who placed such emphasis on nurturing their own to the sort of ‘galactico’ philosophy of Real Madrid, it was surely the respective decisions on Welbeck and Radamel Falcao.
Two of Ferguson’s former assistants, Mike Phelan and Rene Meulensteen, have already registered their surprise at Welbeck’s departure. Even Arsenal had not initially expected to get the deal over the line.
“Someone like a Danny Welbeck has been part of United’s identity and that has been broken,” Phelan said. “I think he chose Arsenal because they give him the opportunity to play in his best position, which is a striker.”
The one obvious reservation for Arsenal is whether Welbeck can provide the sort of quality that is lacking in the specialist main central striker’s role. Another player who is actually better suited out wide – like Walcott, Lukas Podolski and perhaps Alexis Sanchez or Joel Campbell – is not what Arsenal need.
Wenger wants a player who can play with his back to goal, become the focal point of the attack and effectively link his many attacking midfielders. He also wants goals regularly. Can Welbeck perform all these roles for Arsenal? The jury is still out but, unlike at United under Louis van Gaal, he should at least now get the chance to find out.
Arsenal will nurse Laurent Koscielny through the next four months after failing to sign a central defender before the transfer window closed. Koscielny has an ongoing Achilles problem that has already ruled him out of one game this season, the 2-2 draw at Everton, and also suffered a head injury against Leicester City. The 28-year-old pulled out of the France squad for the international games against Spain and Serbia.