We always knew that Louis Van Gaal’s arrival at Manchester United would precede a clearing of the Old Trafford cupboards, but nobody imagined that Danny Welbeck would be part of the immediate exodus.
According to various reports, the young England forward will be granted a transfer before the window closes, and United are seemingly willing to say goodbye to a player who is still expected by most to turn into one of the better home-grown players of his generation. Everton are supposedly keen on him, Tottenham have already been linked with a move, and even Hull have optimistically registered an interest; if the many press reports are to believed, Welbeck is entering his last week as a Manchester United.
And actually, that’s probably for the best.
Danny Welbeck is a cross-category forward. He is not an outright goal-scorer and nor will he ever be. Instead, he’s a player who has really been grown to suit the modern attacking structure and who is of most use in the fashionable wide-forward role which seems to exist in almost every major club’s formation.
The trouble is, that Manchester United have become the exception to that rule and Louis Van Gaal has no obvious use for that kind of player.
The Dutchman immediately installed a 3-5-2 formation at his new club, and the use of wing-backs within that structure makes the wide-forward position obsolete. Within that system, the only forwards who are really viable are those with more traditional attributes - goal-scorers who are comfortable in the opponent’s penalty-box and those who can drop and drift into a freer, supporting role.
Welbeck isn’t that guy. He’s not economical enough to be considered a genuine rival to Robin van Persie, and he lacks the all-round game to occupy Wayne Rooney’s position. In the past, when Manchester United have had a striker shortage and Welbeck has been used centrally, the spotlight has always fallen on his chance-conversion rate. Whilst he may score goals - and, occasionally, spectacularly so - that is not the same as being a natural goal-scorer.
Welbeck’s strengths are in other departments though, and he’s valuable for other reasons. Whilst the term ‘defensive forward’ may sound like a contradiction in terms, in reality it’s a crucial part of the modern game. Welbeck’s pace allows him to create passing options behind a defence and be a vertical threat to a a full-back, but he’s also defensive extremely capable. When Manchester United faced Real Madrid in the Champions League round of sixteen in 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson picked Welbeck to start the first-leg in the Bernabeu and the then 22 year-old gave a perfect example of his value. Not only did he score opportunistically from a set-piece, but his work-rate, ability on the ball, and discipline allowed United to severely restrict Real’s right-hand side.
He can be, for want of a better description, a nod to an opponent’s attacking strength whilst at the same time a selection which preserves his own side’s offensive options. Crucially, though, no opportunity exists for such a player within a 3-5-2.
Danny Welbeck also has to be mindful of his age. He will turn twenty-four in November and, whilst nowhere near his prime yet, he is in a formative stage of his career. With the development of other English attacking players who will rival him for a place in the national side, his need for continued club selection is growing. If Manchester United are not able to provide him with that opportunity, players like Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and even James Ward-Prowse are going to become increasingly preferable to Roy Hodgson. This is not the time for him to stagnate.
This is such a common situation with British talent. Big clubs with plentiful resources and fantastic training facilities are the perfect incubating environment for a teenage prospect, but as the player gets older and actual first-team minutes become more pertinent, the size of the club can be very harmful. We’ve seen English players getting lost in the bowels of a deep squad before, and if that happened in this instance it would be an unforgivable waste.
When you watch Danny Welbeck, you’re really seeing unrefined talent. If that’s the case now, and if Louis Van Gaal persists with his current formation - which he has no reason not to - then what chance is Welbeck really going to have to mature to the extent of his potential?
Whether it’s within the Premier League or abroad, he should grasp the opportunity to move and find a club who will genuinely value him as an automatic starter.