by Naveen Maliakkal
If the signing of Alexis Sanchez represented a step towards athleticism and work rate, then the signing of Danny Welbeck represents a second step in that direction. In a way, one can see the Danny Welbeck signing as a refutation of Mario Balotelli as a footballer. Arsenal and Liverpool acquire Welbeck and Balotelli, respectively, for a similar fee. While Mario Balotelli is the once-in-a-lifetime talent, that rare blend of technical ability and physical gifts that could dominate football, he is constantly criticized for his lack of concentration, work rate, and understanding of how to play as a member of a team. On the other hand, Danny Welbeck, while athletic, is not in Balotelli’s league as a physical specimen. Welbeck does not come close to Balotelli when it comes to his technique, although his ability to circulate possession quickly (receive and move the ball quickly) is superior. If I had to pick the three best aspects of Welbeck’s play it would be his teamwork, his work rate, and his tactical intelligence, which for an English player is a rare commodity that should be cherished. These skills could become quite valuable at center-forward for Arsenal.
In some ways, I see Danny Welbeck as a kind of Robert Lewandowski-type at center forward. While he may never score 20 goals in a league season for Arsenal or generate the shot volume that Lewandowski does, he can drop deep and offer good link-up play; he has the quickness to be a threat on the counter and to get in behind defenders; he has the tactical understanding and the work rate to be involved in a pressing system to disrupt the opposition. His completeness as a football player allows Arsene Wenger to deploy this bundle of resources in some interesting ways.
Last season, with Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out of the side, Arsenal had an extremely slow attacking front. It was painful to see Mesut Ozil try to keep the offense from completely tanking with a lack of options ahead of him. Coming from a team with of runs Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain, and Angel Di Maria, this may have been the most frustrating period of Ozil’s playing career. Fast forward about six months and Arsenal have signed Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, with Oxlade-Chamberlain fit and Theo Walcott getting closer to returning to action. Arsene Wenger has certainly fulfilled his and Mesut Ozil’s need for speed (someone should totally edit that clip to have Arsene Wenger and Mesut Ozil’s heads on Goose and Maverick).
In addition to the obvious speed on the counter, the quickness of Welbeck will be important in the final third. His agility will allow him to get past defenders, exploit gaps in the lines, and create a bit of space to get shots on goal. Also, when he moves into a wide area, his quickness and his dribbling (though his inconsistency with his technique will lead to moments like this) will allow him to get past defenders. Finally, his quickness in passing will also help Arsenal in the final third. Too often this season, Arsenal have been too slow and too static in their build-up, which could easily be due to a lack of cohesion. While Welbeck may follow suit and play a slower, less risky style, his quickness of thought and passing could help Arsenal play at a faster tempo, circulate the ball more quickly, and create/exploit more openings in opposition defenses. In fact, his link-up play is another aspect of Welbeck’s game that will benefit Arsenal.
A Happy Medium between Giroud and Sanchez
While Welbeck does offer quickness, pace, movement, and some dribbling ability, he also has the strength and the experience to do some of the back-to-goal play that Olivier Giroud does. With the likes of Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey, and Theo Walcott looking to run beyond the center forward, Welbeck’s ability to play with his back to goal will keep that attribute on the pitch, even when Giroud is not available to play.
Combine that ability to do what Giroud does with the pace, quickness, and movement of Alexis Sanchez, and the back line will probably not push up with the enthusiasm that they normally did last season when Giroud played up top. Not only will this prevent the opposition from compressing the space in midfield, it also helps to push the defense closer to their goal. This could mean more space between the center backs and central midfielders, space Arsenal players love to exploit. It could force defenses to defend deeper, helping to mitigate the damage of Arsenal’s turnovers in the final third, as the opponent has a longer distance to travel in order to threaten Arsenal’s goal. Against a side like Chelsea or Manchester City, whose center-backs have the physicality to neutralize the play of Giroud, a center forward like Welbeck could find more freedom when he drops deep, as the defenders will not be as enthusiastic in closing down the center forward. So while he may not provide the aerial prowess of the Frenchman, Welbeck can provide some of the attributes of Olivier Giroud, without some of the significant costs of fielding Olivier Giroud.
One of the most interesting aspects of Danny Welbeck as a center forward is his defensive ability. Sir Alex Ferguson often trusted Welbeck to shut down an opposing midfielder or smother an opposing full-back, while using his pace to remain a threat on the counter attack. This is why Ferguson played him in some of United’s biggest matches, despite his lack of an outstanding goal-scoring record.
A classic example of Welbeck’s ability as a disruptive force came against Real Madrid in the quarterfinals of the 2012-13 Champions League. While the game saw 11 men play against 11 men, Welbeck successfully marked Xabi Alonso out of the game, disrupting the Real Madrid’s rhythm.
We pick up the game right after Manchester United have taken a 2-1 lead on aggregate.
Danny Welbeck is right next to Xabi Alonso, making sure that Real Madrid do not play the ball into him. Real Madrid try to work the ball on the right side only to have it come back to Ozil. With no options to play the ball forward to the left of him, Ozil looks to Alonso. Alonso points to the Manchester United goal as if to tell Ozil not to play him the ball. This makes sense as Welbeck is in position to intercept the ball or put Alonso under heavy pressure. Either of which could create a counter-attacking opportunity that could put United up 3-1, killing the tie. Instead the ball finds Gonzalo Higuain, who puts in a surprisingly good cross that no one touches.
He also has the pace to be a threat on the counter attack. For example, in this passage of play (start at about the 2:14 mark of this video) Welbeck starts right next to Xabi Alonso. In the time that it takes for the ball to be played into Robin Van Persie, Welbeck has already got past Alonso, who cannot track Welbeck due to his defensive responsibilities in front of the center-backs, and is running at full speed into the CB/FB gap. Van Persie slips the ball through to Danny Welbeck who has plenty of space in front of him.
Now this clip also highlights the absurd athleticism that Raphael Varane possesses. Varane starts his recovery run while Welbeck is already at full speed and he still manages to catch up with the Englishman, keeping him out of a dangerous shooting position. However, look at all the free space on the left of the picture. That is the territory Varane has ceded in order to snuff out the threat of Welbeck. If Manchester United had someone with the pace of a Theo Walcott or Alexis Sanchez, who could make that run from deep in time, Welbeck has the ability to play a dangerous ball (notice his head is up) in on goal. Instead, Welbeck does well to pass the ball to Ryan Giggs who shapes a nice cross with the outside of his left-foot, looking for a classic Van Persie move (the back-post-run-smash-it-with-his-left one).
Too often, Arsenal attempt to press up front without coordination and with too few in number. This happens any time Olivier Giroud or Alexis Sanchez attempts to press two center backs by themselves, or when two Arsenal players try to press two center backs and a deep-lying midfielder. In these scenarios the opponent has a spare man that allows them the play around the pressure. Therefore, the most frequent result is a waste of energy by Arsenal players.
For Arsenal one could see how Welbeck’s tactical understanding and work rate could be used to great effect against the best teams, particularly those in the English Premier League. Without a player who can operate in a lone holding midfielder being brought in, we may see more of the 4-2-3-1 that we saw last season. Defensively, one could see Arsenal press with a front 3 of Sanchez/Welbeck/Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain. Against a team with two midfielders close to the back line, Aaron Ramsey could push up with Mesut Ozil to create a 4-1-2-3.
Here the left winger can press the ball while denying a clear passing lane between the center back and the right back. This is something Alexis Sanchez adeptly does when he closes down an opponent. The center forward looks to deny the passing lane between the two center backs. With Welbeck’s agility, he can put himself in this position and close down the goalkeeper, should the center back attempt to play it back to his keeper. With the midfield trio marking the other midfielders, the right winger marking the left-back, and the two center backs + right back defending the opponent’s center forward and left winger, the best option for the center-back often involves playing the ball to his right winger. And this is exactly what the defense wants. If a successful pass is made, the team shifts to overload the ball-side and now we have a situation where the right winger and the right back have been cut off from the rest of their team, as a wall of five Arsenal players have set up a wall (Tom Thibodeau would be proud).
The only easy pass available to the right winger is a pass back to the right back. If that happens, the Arsenal players can swarm the right back and try to win the ball back. In this case, the left winger and the center forward have to understand their roles. The left winger has to close down the right back, while denying the passing lane from right-back to center back. This is why such a pressing strategy would work best on the side with Alexis Sanchez, as he is Arsenal’s best presser. The center forward has the role of free safety (he is the Earl Thomas of this whole thing). If the right back tries to hit the ball across the field, either to the far-side midfielder, center back, or to the left-back, the center forward has to have the intelligence and the athleticism to both position himself properly, react properly, and to be able to make a play on the ball. A player like Welbeck, with his athleticism and intelligence, is more than suited for this role. Without this kind of player, it is too easy for the right back to hit a speculative ball across the field to safety, meaning that the entire effort would be for naught (and probably disincentivizes attempts at pressing high up the pitch like this).
Now that was an example of the high pressing that Danny Welbeck at center forward can help allow. However, unless a team has ridiculous fitness levels and/or has an enormous amount of the ball (2011 Barcelona represent a prime example of the “and” case), high pressing over the course of a 90 minute match can impose too much of a physical tax. While it may prove effective for a period, consistently pressing like this will leave a team shattered later in the match. This could lead to fatigued pressing, which the opponent can rip through and find themselves in advantageous situations. Fatigue could lead to a side defending too deeply and failing to apply pressure to the opponents midfield, making it only a matter of time before the opponent exploits the gaps in their defense (Arsenal did this in the final 15 minutes against a fatigued Everton to steal a point). Fatigue also leads to slower counters and sloppier technique which can decrease offensive effectiveness and increase turnovers, giving the opponent more opportunities to take advantage of tired defenders. One has to look to allocate resources properly in order to play a 90 minute game. Fortunately, Welbeck offers a method of defensive disruption that allows Arsenal to more sparingly use the high press and still remain an effective defensive unit.
Like in the second leg against Real Madrid, Welbeck can look to drop into midfield, disrupting the rhythm of an opposition side. This could prove particularly effective against Premier League sides. Looking at Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Spurs, Everton, and Manchester United, none have center backs that act as playmakers (Chelsea sold their only playmaker at center back to PSG for a sum that facilitated their summer spending). There are no Mats Hummels’s, Gerard Pique’s, or Andrea Barzagli’s in the Premier League. So when allocating defensive resources in a non-high pressing situation, the center backs may be the position to divest from so to invest in more important areas. With Danny Welbeck in the side, as opposed to Olivier Giroud, Arsenal have a center forward who can drop into midfield and has the combination of quickness and strength to challenge various types of deep-lying midfielders. Arsenal could have a 4-4-1-1-0 kind of shape with Sanchez and Walcott/Oxlade-Chamberlain out wide, Welbeck dropping deep to pressing the deep-lying midfielder, and Ozil the highest up the pitch, acting as counter-attack decision maker and incisive passer to set Arsenal’s runners on goal.
Liverpool (Gerrard), Everton (Barry), Tottenham (Bentaleb) and Manchester United (Carrick) all have deep-lying midfielder who they like to play through. Even Chelsea, though both Fabregas and Oscar come deep to receive the ball, and City, though the rotate in midfield quite a bit, would be disrupted by Welbeck’s harassment of Nemanja Matic and Fernando. If Arsene Wenger attempted this strategy, particularly against Chelsea or Manchester United, there would be a sense of irony to employing such a tactic, as these two sides have used it to such great effect against Arsenal.
Olivier Giroud Supersub
Against Everton, Olivier Giroud came on and helped Arsenal score two goals to earn a point against Everton. While one could argue that the rest of the team’s understanding on how to play with the Frenchman played a role, another issue may have been Giroud ability to abuse tired defenders. When trying to defend a lead or a tied match, the last thing that center backs want to deal with is a physical striker coming off the bench. They are less aggressive in trying to close down the center forward, less likely to win headers, and more likely to cede positions too close to goal (to make a basketball analogy, this is like conceding deep post position to Marc Gasol). In this scenario, where Giroud comes off the bench, the Frenchman has not been worn down battling physical center backs and more easily bully them. Therefore, the signing of Welbeck could allow Giroud to become the excellent “Plan B” center forward. Against inferior sides, against whom Arsenal will look to dominate possession and lack commanding center backs, Wenger could reverse the roles. While trying to take the lead, Giroud would serve as a battering ram, allowing Welbeck to take advantage of physically worn out defenders, especially if the opponent has to chase a goal. How Wenger uses his center forwards once Giroud returns from injury could be quite interesting.
Welbeck has the potential to be a complete center forward. He will probably not become an elite goal-scorer, but he will provide a set of skills that allows him to carry out various roles for Arsenal (I spent around 1500 words describing the defensive possibilities he opens up for Arsenal). When one considers the contribution he can make now and his potential to add goals to his game, this could prove a shrewd signing for the Gunners that could see them set at the center forward position for the next five seasons.