There was a brilliant moment in the second half of England’s 2-0 win over Switzerland where Raheem Sterling played in a long cross to Rooney, it was the wrong ball and Johan Djourou should have dealt with it easily, but the Swiss defender misjudged the header, Rooney pounced, headed the ball into the 18 yard box, and sprinted to catch up to what amounted to a pass to himself. Yet, in a moment that Rooney has probably never experienced before in his life, Danny Welbeck swept in from the right side, beat Wayne Rooney to the ball, and took the shot. Djourou had recovered enough by then to get in a block and as Welbeck and Djourou picked themselves up off the ground Welbeck slapped Djourou on the back, one Arsenal man to another, and congratulated him on the tackle.
That passage of play made me smile. First, there was Sterling’s pass. Welbeck made a great run to the right of Sterling, which is where he should have played the ball, but instead he clipped a terrible pass to Rooney who was covered by two men. Djourou, the former Arsenal man, did what Djourou did when he was at Arsenal; make a hash of a simple ball. Then Rooney did what he always does and seized on the opportunity. But in swept Welbeck, belly full but hungry, nipped the ball from an exasperated Rooney and took a shot. Rooney was credited with a key pass (would he have gotten an assist if he shot it himself and scored?) but Welbeck never thanked Rooney for the pass. It was understood between the two, that ball wasn’t meant for him.
Minutes earlier, Welbeck opened the scoring when Sterling put in a decent ball and found Welbeck’s blistering run at the far post. The Arsenal forward spurned Rooney and Sterling and instead ran over to where his new teammates were warming up on the sideline. Choosing to celebrate with Calum Chambers and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain instead of former teammate Wayne Rooney. Symbolically, Welbeck was turning his back on familiarity and embracing the unknown, opportunity.
At Arsenal, Welbeck is going to get that opportunity because that is what Arsene Wenger does: he gives chances to young men who show the right attitude.
Fortunately, throughout his career, Welbeck has consistently shown the proper attitude. Not blessed with the natural talent of a player like Rooney, Welbeck couldn’t afford to take it easy at training sessions. Instead he had to impress the boss every week with his hard work and willingness to play any role that his manager asked of him. Fergie spoke glowingly of his attitude and future two years ago saying,
Last year he had 12 goals, this year he’s only got two, so that’s a big drop, but that drop doesn’t concern us because he still applies himself really well and still looks to score, still looks to get a chance and with that kind of courage he will eventually become a regular goalscorer.
Maybe he doesn’t appreciate us moving him around in various positions and we’ve maybe overused that because he is young, but his value to the club is there because I know he can do a job for me in any of those positions. It’s a fantastic asset when you have a player who is as adaptable as that. But I think he will find his role through the middle once he gets that maturity and gets into a more consistent way of scoring.
His hard work and adaptability has paid off in the international arena as well. At 23 years old Welbeck already has 28 caps for England playing in a variety of positions. But his best position is clearly through the middle. He is the modern interpretation of a traditional British number 9. If you watch the Switzerland highlights again (link at the top of the page) you can see everything that Naveen wrote about in his last two pieces: Welbeck is a big athletic fellow, able to drop deep, collect the ball, beat a marker (tbf it was only Behrami) and play his teammates in¹. The highlights also show that he is blessed with speed and a desire to get in behind the defense and work the defenders.
Wenger is big on giving players opportunity: he is giving a chance to Wilshere, he is giving a chance to Ramsey, to Ox, to Welbeck, to Gnabry, and he is giving a chance to Calum Chambers. It doesn’t always work out but Cesc Fabregas wouldn’t have the career in football he has if Wenger didn’t take a chance on him as a 16 year old. All Wenger asks in return is that they repay his faith with a little of their own, the one lesson Cesc didn’t learn²
Even better, with Giroud out and Arsenal needing a player who can be the focal point of the attack Welbeck is going to get his chances in his preferred position. And playing with guys like Özil, Ramsey, and Sanchez, players who know where to deliver the caviar, there are going to be ample spoonfuls for Welbeck to gobble up.
If he can continue to apply himself, if he can turn his back on familiarity and embrace the unknown, Wenger will give him the chances to prove himself. And at just £16m I suspect that Welbeck will not only score more goals than Falcao but also be the signing of the season.
¹Welbeck’s pass to Sterling has been criticized as being behind the player but what I saw was Sterling making too eager a run. Midfielders often do that when they aren’t used to scoring, they run at or near full tilt when there is space in the 18 yard box. Instead, Sterling needed to check his run a bit to create time and space for the forward to get him the ball.
²Cesc was given his chance by Arsene and he worked hard to become the best player he could be. I enjoyed watching Cesc as an Arsenal player and while he was using Arsenal as a stepping stone, he was rewarded with wealthy contracts and with a playing career which would take him back to his dream job at Barcelona and win him 6 trophies in 3 years. That was then, this is now: now Fabregas is a Chelsea player, I wish him nothing but the worst of luck. This debate over whether Arsenal should have bought Cesc is over for me.