When will Danny Welbeck really make sense at Arsenal?
Alexis Sanchez inspiring Arsenal to victory has been a recurring theme of Arsenal’s season – perhaps the dominant theme. But Wembley also witnessed the persistence of another feature of the campaign which has been rather less reported but just as resilient: the question of the function and value of Danny Welbeck.
Where one versatile, floating forward supplied the match-winning contribution, the other made little discernible impact. It is one of the minor quirks of the season that Welbeck has scored as many goals at Wembley, four, as he has at Emirates Stadium, where he treads the turf every fortnight. But even this happy hunting ground turned barren for the Arsenal and England striker in the FA Cup semi-final victory over Reading.
This has not been a distinguished season for Welbeck. Far from it. In the Premier League he has four goals and three assists for Arsenal. It’s a disappointing return for a forward. In fact, it is worse than Branislav Ivanovic who has four and four for Chelsea. Always willing in his running and enthusiastic in his approach – as well as being a wholly nice person, by all accounts - it is nevertheless true that Welbeck’s output has been vastly disappointing.
It is a problem he is not blind to, telling Martin Keown in the Daily Mail this week: “It’s a transitional year for me, getting to know new players, new team-mates, new systems and new ways of going about things at a different club. I think I’ve put in a few good performances. I’ve been unlucky on the club front with goals and that’s something I know will come in abundance when I get to know everything spot on with the club and I’m pretty sure that will happen.” Littered with caveats, it wasn’t the most confident assertion of self.
A move away from Manchester United was supposed to recast Welbeck as the central striker he always wanted to be, but two bursts of individual excellence have prevented him from making the impact he would have wished for: Sanchez’s superb first half of the season and Olivier Giroud’s prolific spell towards the end of the second. For transition, read eternal frustration.
Either exiled to a wide position or overshadowed to the point of being totally eclipsed when playing through the centre, this campaign has passed Welbeck by somewhat, at least when measured by the conventional standards that football projects onto a forward. Namely, scoring goals and setting them up.
As recently as March, Wenger described Welbeck as “an exceptional player who will have a great future here. I am very, very happy that I bought him.” The England international has certainly improved the strength of the squad and he has made a contribution to Arsenal’s sustained good form, but the expected moment of lift-off has not arrived. We are still waiting for the moment when Welbeck really makes sense, at least in an Arsenal shirt.
Strangely, though, his long-desired transformation from utility forward into first-choice striker is complete at international level, where he is the leading scorer across the whole of Euro 2016 qualifying with six goals. Four of those have come at home for England, matching his home tally for Arsenal. It is a striking statistic, made worse by the fact that three of his four goals at Emirates Stadium were bundled together in one match against Galatasaray. It was a fleeting glimpse of the striker Welbeck wishes to become.
Saturday at least returned Welbeck to that productive Wembley turf as he surprisingly started the FA Cup semi-final against Reading ahead of Giroud, who was left on the bench despite having scored 11 goals in 12 games for club and country. It was an act of rotation which only made the wheels come off for Wenger, as Welbeck operated on the fringes of the match, Sanchez outperforming him once again, coming in from the left to score the opening goal.
On 72 minutes, with Welbeck having offered just one half-chance all match when running onto a Kieran Gibbs pass on five minutes and failing to beat Adam Federici, it was his number 23 which flashed up on the electronic board, with Giroud arriving to a chorus of cheers from an Arsenal end which had been silenced by Garath McCleary’s unlikely equaliser.
Sanchez settled matters in extra-time with his 22nd of the season. If the Chile star is having a transitional season - after moving to an entirely new country, it should be noted - then England should quake at the thought he will improve next time around. His function in the team is devastating; his value approaching priceless. For Welbeck, the situation is rather less clear.
Tom Adams at Wembley Stadium - @tomEurosport