How did Danny dodge blame at Arsenal this season?
After he scored Arsenal’s winner at Old Trafford in March, Danny Welbeck’s face was a picture of mixed emotion: part of him wanted to get excited, part of him knew it was better to keep a lid on it. That’s a bit how Gunners supporters feel when they assess his performance across his debut season down south – they’re not sure which way to go.
What's remarkable is how seldom his Gunners form has been assessed at all. When Thierry Henry tore into the Arsenal squad on Sky Sports last month, he zoomed in on the perceived inadequacies of two players: Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil. Both have been targets for critics throughout the 2014/15 campaign, even though they have put in a succession of excellent performances for the Gunners.
Henry had nothing to say about Welbeck; few critics do. If only the Englishman could evade the attention of opposition defences as well as he has evaded scrutiny this season, he’d probably be the club’s top scorer.
Instead, Welbeck has scored just eight goals in 34 appearances since his £16 million move in September. Compare that with the oft-slammed Giroud, who scored 17 goals in 34 games. This is not the only comparison that damns Welbeck: he was the focal point of Arsenal’s attack during their autumnal struggles, while Giroud’s return to spearhead the frontline coincided with the team’s upsurge in form and results.
So why is Giroud considered the problem, and Welbeck seen as blameless? Perhaps he is benefiting from an underlying prejudice, which sees some fans and media instinctively give young home-grown players a slightly gentler ride. With so many foreign stars in the Premier League, some observers seem particularly keen to believe that any young Englishman has a bright future. They so want domestic lads to prosper that they find it hard to remove the hopes they've pinned on them.
Welbeck is an immensely likeable character, one of the sport’s nice guys. Perhaps a bit too nice, when push comes to shove.
Speaking of his less-than-spectacular debut Arsenal campaign, he said: “It's been a transitional season for me, moving down to London, playing for a new manager, getting used to new things.” He said that London is “very different to Manchester” and that he remains “pretty sure” he will improve next season.
But what’s all this stuff about a transitional season? Alexis Sanchez, the Chilean who swapped sunny Barcelona for London last summer, didn’t need one of them. Does London differ so much from Manchester that it takes a year to acclimatise to the capital? As for Welbeck being “pretty sure” he will improve in future campaigns, one would wish for a more stirring outlook from the striker than that.
Although he has brought balance to the line-up, the 24-year-old has yet to shake the doubts most Arsenal fans had when he arrived. The fact that the likes of Spurs and Sunderland were competing for his signature told its own story. Only the most generous could give him more than six out of 10 for the season.
Danny vs Manuel
A knee injury means Welbeck won't be able to silence the doubters with a moment of magic in the FA Cup final at Wembley this weekend, and thus rewrite the story of his first year in north London.
And that's a shame for Arsene Wenger, because he gave Aston Villa 45 minutes of hell at their ground earlier this season, effortlessly tearing their backline to pieces with a goal and an assist.
What are the chances of a repeat if he gets the nod under the arch? During his Old Trafford years, some commentators described him as a big-game player. But United fans are not so sure: his towering header at the Bernabeu in 2013 looms no larger in their memories than his humbling chip and miss against Bayern.
Before the latter game, David Moyes had briefed Welbeck about Manuel Neuer’s weakness, instructing him to “shoot low” if he got a one-on-one. Wayne Rooney put Welbeck in such a position, but when the pressure was on he defied Moyes’ briefing by attempting a lob which scarcely troubled the German goalkeeper. Not for the first time, his pace had impressed but his composure had gone missing.
Half of Welbeck’s Gunners goals have come on reasonably high-profile occasions: a hat-trick against Galatasaray, and the winner against his old side at Old Trafford in the FA Cup quarter-final.
Yet more recently, he has disappointed in the grander battles. He was less than commanding against Monaco, toothless in the FA Cup semi-final against Reading, and when introduced against Chelsea, drained the life out of the Gunners' attack rather than add energy to it.
Having failed to earn a regular starting place under three successive Manchester United managers, it’s so far been a case of déjà vu under Wenger for Welbeck. The brightest ray of hope can be found in his form on the international stage. For England, where he is regularly selected in his favoured central position, he has scored 14 goals in just 33 outings. He is the overall top scorer in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign with six.
The man has class, and Gunners supporters will hope he can replicate his international form at the Emirates Stadium next season. Welbeck didn't come close enough to it during 2014/15, but then perhaps his fate was sealed when Michael Owen, that very personification of well-meaning but hellishly witless punditry, opined that he "could be one of the signings of the summer". Others predicted that the pacey frontman could become Wenger’s second Thierry Henry. Instead, he currently seems poised to become the next Sylvain Wiltord: an adequate attacking squad option, best known for an eye-catching winner at Old Trafford.