The date is the 15th of November 2008 and these are the words of ex-Manchester United manager (still weird to say that) Sir Alex Ferguson, regarding the absolute worldie that 17 year old Danny Welbeck had just struck to make it 4-0 against Stoke City in a 5-0 routine triumph:
“Unbelievable. To score on your full debut with a goal like that, he will remember it for a long time.”
Manchester United had been comfortable, 3-0 up against a mediocre Stoke team before the teenage Welbeck, not even old enough to buy half a lager shandy in a pub, edged the ball onto his right foot and smashed in an unstoppable shot almost 30 yards out. The Stretford End exploded, Welbeck’s face beamed like a fat kid’s marooned in a house made out of a Celebrations tin and it seemed as though a new Manchester United star was born.
Fast forward to August 17th, 2013, almost five years on. In added time, Danny Welbeck, by now a fully-fledged England international and first team player, lifts an exquisitely deft chip over Swansea goalkeeper Michel Vorm to make it an opening day 4-1 victory for his team in the 2013-14 Premier League season. It’s a fine goal, Welbeck’s second of the match, and he rightly accepts the acclaim of his supporters after a job well done.
However, my problem isn’t with either of these wonder-goals; both are memorably brilliant and are Match of the Day replay material. Neither is my problem with Welbeck himself, who seems a dedicated, likeable professional. What preoccupies and underwhelms me is what’s occurred between November 2008 and August 2013. I was watching that winter day against Stoke and Danny Welbeck promised me the world and he hasn’t delivered. A new young English hero, almost exactly the same age as me, superior in both talent and audacity to those a decade older than him. Before Danny, it had been Wayne Rooney. Before him, the generation of Becks, Scholes, Giggs et al had adorned my wall as I vicariously lived my dreams through these youngsters who all went on to become brilliant players within a few years.
But Danny Welbeck hasn’t. Without doubt, he’s been a reliable performer for Manchester United since returning from a loan spell at Sunderland in 2011. In particular, he ably demonstrated his selflessness by sticking to Sir Alex’s ultimately failed tactical blueprint against Real Madrid in the Champions League last season, despite Welbeck having to sacrifice his own hopes of glory for the good of the team. I was there for the away leg in the Santiago Bernabéu; Welbeck grabbed a vital away goal and put in a grafting performance that stifled the ball-playing creativity of Madrid between the lines of defence and their deep-lying midfielder, the excellent Xabi Alonso.
Nevertheless, standout performances such as these are the exception and never the rule for Danny. He scored two goals last season in total. Two, poxy, goals. In 40 games. That’s a goals-per-game ratio of 0.05. For a forward at Manchester United, playing regularly, you’d assume that the decimal is in the wrong place but, unfortunately for Danny, my calculator is a lot more reliable than his right foot was last season. In 2013-14, Robin van Persie had 0.78 and Wayne Rooney 0.57 in the Premier League. Rooney was supposed to have had an indifferent season; if so, what on Earth could you call Welbeck’s?
Yes, Danny is versatile and athletic, meaning he’s sometimes played out of position, especially in Europe to help close opponents down to assist the greater good of the team. He is young and there’s plenty of time for him to develop into a 25 goals a season forward. That tantalisingly subtle and ingeniously instinctive chip against Swansea, in stoppage time, illustrates that, as well as his overall performance which David Moyes considered even more impressive. But the question is: how can Danny grow into the top class striker that Fergie suggested he would one day become?
In May of this year, Ferguson admitted of Welbeck that 'maybe he doesn’t appreciate us moving him around in various positions'. His attacking play, whilst industrious, is certainly not yet incisive, but there is reason to at least be mildly confident that Welbeck can mature into a top centre-forward, rather than a back-up striker and occasional winger. Moyes has a proven track record of extracting the most he can possibly get out of players, consistently improving their attacking statistics. He helped mould the generally unfancied former Millwall player Tim Cahill into one of the most consistent goal-scoring midfielders of the recent Premier League era, with the Australian regularly hitting double figures for goals scored. For Mikel Arteta, Moyes managed to motivate the Spaniard into popping up much more regularly with crucial assists than he had done previously in his career. During a two year stint at Rangers between 2002 and 2004, Arteta recorded a dismal zero assists. During his first two and a half years at Everton, Arteta popped up with 21. Victor Anichebe, the bruising but injury-ravaged Nigerian striker, has also benefited from the tactical nous of Moyes, scoring a career high 8 goals last season whilst also chipping in with 10 assists. The significant improvement of Arteta's figures started to occur around the age of 23, as did Anichebe's. Welbeck turns 23 this year, and is a much more promising attacking prospect than Anichebe ever was.
Although it'd be difficult to see Welbeck transforming into the rangy, rampaging striker that Thierry Henry became under Arsene Wenger, the indications certainly point to an increase in the area that, let's face it, all strikers are ultimately judged on: goals scored. If he remains fit and applies himself, a minimum of 15 goals this season should be the aim, if not 20. He already has as many as he had for the whole of last season; so go on Danny, prove my doubts wrong, promise me the world again, and grow into the fearsome striker I once believed you would be.