TACTICAL THOUGHTS: DANNY WELBECK

“We’re trying to get his finishing up with his effort and levels and I think Danny is responding, he’s thinking, ‘This is quite good, I’m beginning to score more goals, I’m getting recognised for that as well’………………….When you don’t have Wayne and you don’t have Robin you need people to step up to the mark and in quite a few games recently he’s done that.” – David Moyes, post match press conference at Norwich on 28th December 2013.

For any forward player it will always be about goals; when considering Danny Welbeck this has been an area of concern for some time now, although recently he has hit a rare vein of scoring form. He scored two excellent goals in the first game of this season at Swansea leading some to speculate that perhaps he had overcome a drought that saw him net only two last season. Then he failed to score again until the game at Aston Villa on 17th December 2013. He has since scored two more goals, the last being the only goal of the game at Norwich when his introduction as a second half substitute changed the game.

Danny Welbeck is a player who divides opinion amongst United fans. One of a group of players that has emerged in recent years and often touted as the future of the club, a product of the club’s Academy, Welbeck made an initial impact in the run to the final of the League Cup in 2009; a run that saw United win the trophy and Welbeck pick up his first winner’s medal.

The following year he went out on loan to Preston, an adventure cut short by injury. Once recovered, he was loaned out again in the 2010-11 season, this time to Sunderland where he featured in 26 games, netting 6 goals. He was recalled for the start of the 2011-12 season and has since been a permanent member of the first team squad.

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Danny Welbeck made quite an impact in the 2011-12 season; he made 39 appearances in all competitions and scored 12 goals. Most saw this as a promising start and looked forward to further progress in the following season. He was seen as a dynamic raw talent rather than the finished product, with a favourite moment being his goal in the FA Cup derby in January. The general perception was that as a forward player looking to hold down a regular place in the United side he must score more goals.  Sadly last year the goals dried up, with Welbeck only getting on the score sheet twice.

Welbeck is strong, mobile and reads the game well. He is tactically disciplined, his movement intelligent and he is deceptively quick.  In the statement by David Moyes quoted above, the phrase “as well” is quite telling.  It is these qualities that Moyes was referring to with those words. His weakness is his composure in goal scoring situations and he is sometimes slow to get his shot away. He still occasionally looks like Bambi on ice, but his composure and finishing look as though they are improving this season.

It is perhaps unfair to judge Danny Welbeck solely on his goal return. An examination of the game at Norwich and a comparison with Hernandez’ performance in that game tells an interesting story.

United had struggled in the first half, with Norwich having better and more chances to score; United were perhaps lucky to reach the break on level terms. The difference in the second half was the introduction of Welbeck and his link play. There is no doubt that Hernandez is a better finisher than Welbeck; his goal scoring is more instinctive, snapping up half chances in the box with early shots which beat the opposition because they catch them unawares.  Outside the box Hernandez is less effective. He likes to play on the shoulder of the last defender, always looking to run in behind.  At Norwich this resulted in United’s shape becoming stretched and Hernandez becoming isolated. He was effectively running away from rather than towards his teammates and as a consequence United struggled to retain possession as they came forward.

In the second half United changed shape reverting to a formation approximating a 4-4-1-1. In this shape Welbeck was always prepared to drop deep and link play. United were able to retain possession, link play through the middle of the team and eventually Welbeck himself scored the winning goal. It was the goal that got the headlines, but in truth it was Welbeck’s link play that made the difference.

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This illustrates one of the most valuable features of Welbeck’s game – his awareness of colleagues and space. These are qualities that have endeared him in the past to Sir Alex and, it would seem, increasingly to David Moyes. These qualities make Welbeck deceptively versatile and as such he has been trusted to play a variety of roles in a variety of formations both for his club and country. (Incidentally,  he has an excellent record for England, having scored 8 goals in 20 games for the national side). Welbeck can and has played as part of a front two, he can lead the line or play as a support striker. He has also played as a lone front man.  He can play as part of a midfield three and has done so on several occasions when United have switched to a 4-3-3; in that instance Welbeck usually occupies space on the left, or as part of the three in the 4-2-3-1 featuring either through the centre or on the left. He has played wide left in a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1 in emergencies, notably for the last half hour against Real Madrid at Old Trafford.  His versatility is not in doubt.

He was clearly a trusted member of Sir Alex’s squad and this was illustrated to no greater extent than by the faith Sir Alex placed in him when selecting him to perform a key role in the Champions League games against Real Madrid.  Perhaps these were the two standout performances of Welbeck’s season last year.  He scored in Madrid and this of course grabbed the headlines, but as at Norwich recently it was the tactical role he played in each of these games that was important.  Welbeck was asked to occupy space in front and around the Real Madrid half-backs and, critically, stay close to Alonso.  Alonso was a key to the Madrid game plan; Madrid under Mourinho sat deep and looked to hit teams on the counter, with the direction of the break being dictated through and by Alonso.  Stopping Alonso effectively stopped quick supply to Ronaldo et al. Welbeck stuck to his task and it was only after he was removed from this role after Nani’s dismissal (being repositioned to a wide left position) that Real Madrid were able to assert themselves. Of course they now had a man advantage but Welbeck’s repositioning freed Alonso to exert a greater influence on the game.  Would we have seen a different outcome had he not been repositioned?

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Danny Welbeck’s tactical discipline, his ability to read a game and his versatility are real assets, but are they also a hindrance to his development as a goal scorer? Perhaps it is no coincidence that his goals in recent weeks have come when other forwards have been injured or withdrawn to deeper positions (Rooney’s recent redeployment in midfield). With England, Welbeck has usually been deployed as one of the main forwards.

If David Moyes can help Danny Welbeck to develop a more ruthless eye for goal, a more instinctive spontaneous streak and at times more composure when he sees the whites of the goalkeeper’s eyes, then this would undoubtedly complement the  ‘as well’ qualities to which David Moyes refers.  We might then enjoy watching Welbeck fulfil much of the promise seen in his early appearances and glimpsed at times this season.  Hopefully we will see more and Danny Welbeck can kick on to enjoy a long-term successful career at the club.