In the aftermath of the Champions League final defeat to Barcelona in 2011, it would have seemed almost inconceivable that in just a few months Danny Welbeck would be leading our front line alongside Wayne Rooney. An impressive debut season from Javier Hernandez was still being heavily praised by both United fans and journalists, and while there were large questions in the press over Berbatov’s future after being dropped out of the whole squad, it quickly became clear that his intention was to stay despite the humiliation. When returning from his season-long loan at Sunderland at the end of that season, it’s feasible to suggest Welbeck was still 4th or 5th choice striker with the likes of Michael Owen and even Federico Macheda adding to those ahead of him in the pecking order.
Yet three or four months down the line, we began witnessing a young Danny Welbeck in the best form of his young life. From the depressing days that followed the match against Barcelona it would’ve been rather unbelievable to think that Welbeck would even get a sustained chance in the team, let alone create the chances that could see him cement his place in the starting XI. Even more so, a year earlier I personally had my doubts over his ability to even make the step-up into the Premier League with the youngster struggling during his loan spell at Peterborough. I have to say I’m pretty happy I never voiced that opinion loudly. Credit must go to Danny last year for scoring 9 goals and, although that may not seem like too much, the importance of the goals and his overall work ethic more than make up for it.
Regardless of his excellent development though, another year brings another challenge for Welbeck. The arrival of Robin van Persie immediately changes the situation and understandably the already popular ‘RvP’ has slotted straight in ahead of Welbeck, even though recent performances from Welbeck in Rooney’s absence have suggested this might not be a bad thing. The Manchester-born Welbeck, who has just signed a more lucrative contract that will see him stay until at least 2016, has shown an incredible amount of fight in the last few games – working back twice as hard, and twice as much, as usual. Last Saturday against Wigan things just didn’t really work for him, but you can’t criticise the effort put in and you can really see how hard he is trying to prove his worth to the team.
Of course injuries have played their part in the amount of game time Welbeck has had, but even with the absence of Rooney the time he’s had on the pitch is a tad surprising. One of the reasons Danny got his big break in the first place was the failure of Chicharito, through injury and fatigue, to reproduce the excellent form we witnessed in his debut season. With his first prolonged rest in a good few years, Chicharito looks considerably calmer, fitter and certainly stronger. The Mexican used to be a bit one-dimensional in that he was only good at making runs off the ball, but so far this season his build-up play and ability on the ball have seemingly both improved. Logic would suggest that Chicharito and van Persie make a better combination than Welbeck and van Persie when considering their style, so in that respect Welbeck may have even had more playing time than he imagined.
As if Chicharito snapping at his heels and being keen to play wasn’t enough, the return of Rooney from injury is sure to see the resurrection of the exciting partnership briefly put together against Fulham and Everton between himself and the Dutchman, and with that there’s another obstacle for Welbeck to face. Not forgetting the other additions to the strike force with Angelo Henriquez, who had a truly electric summer of goalscoring, joining as well. It’s obvious that as a young lad, Henriquez is a way off the first team yet but as many youngsters have said in the past, it’s often highly important and even motivating to look over your shoulder and see others that are after your place. It would be easy for any player to cut out a frustrated figure after dropping down the pecking order like Welbeck but it’s been a totally a different story.
It’s a sign of the excellent strength in depth we have upfront at the moment that, despite having such an impressive season last time out, Welbeck could still be considered by some as our 4th choice striker. Obviously that depends on an individual’s personal opinion over the whole Welbeck vs Chicharito debate, but there’s a surprising amount of people who believe the latter is the superior player, not an opinion I’d necessarily agree with. The signing of van Persie certainly spices up our attack by simply having a world-class player at our dispense, but the added competition and the hopefully reaction from Chicharito and namely Welbeck could be just as vital if we’re struck with our usual injury worries. Many people feared the negative effect the signing of van Persie might have on Welbeck but, just as he did last season, I’m sure he’ll give it his absolute all and at the end of the day that’s all we can ask for from him. With continued questions over Rooney’s long-term future at the club, who’s to say that in a few months time Welbeck wont be leading the line again?
Published with permission from The Devils of Manchester.