It’s been a very good few days for Arsenal.
On Saturday title rivals Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur both won, but the result of the former also meant defeat for Manchester City. Arsenal, with even more pressure on them than before, played on Sunday and scored two excellent goals to come through a tricky game against Bournemouth at Dean Court.
But before all that, on Friday,we received what could be a huge boost to our title ambitions. Danny Welbeck played football.
That’s right, no typos there, the artist formerly (on his birth certificate, I guess) known as Daniel Nii Tackie Mensah Welbeck played a football match. Well, an hour. Out since last April with a mysterious knee injury, he was originally expected to play before last season ended. Then he was due to be ready for pre-season in the summer. After missing the trip to Singapore for the Barclays Asia Trophy he was supposed to be ready for the Emirates Cup. Needless to say he missed that deadline too and, after the transfer deadline passed in September, it was announced he had undergone surgery.
Fast-forward (something Welbeck is, incidentally) to February and another deadline day has gone without Arsenal doing any business, but this time it may not matter so much. Only supposed to play 45 minutes in Friday’s 4-1 defeat of Brighton u21s, Welbeck came through an hour with no problems.
Next up for the Arsenal u21 side is a match against Swansea City on Monday night, with Welbeck likely to feature again. After so long without competitive football it’s important not to throw him right into the deep end, so he’ll miss next weekend’s clash against Leicester City. However, after that he could be ready and what a boost he would provide.
Theo Walcott has struggled for goals all season, while Joel Campbell has burned out and started to look limited again after a burst of form through the busy festive period. Starting at Bournemouth on Sunday, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored his first Premier League goal since September 2014 and Olivier Giroud claimed an assist. However, Chamberlain’s form this season has been way below par and Giroud has failed to score in five appearances – playing regularly his goals were bound to dry up at some point. Meanwhile, Alexis Sánchez had another quiet game and has failed to hit top form all season, bar a couple of games in the Autumn. Arsenal’s options are plentiful but unreliable.
Welbeck could arguably fall into the same category, but I beg to differ. For starters he can actually play in all three forward positions, more than can be said of any of Arsène Wenger’s current options. The boss doesn’t seem eager to play Alexis anywhere but on the left, and Theo Walcott has struggled when not up front this season. Campbell and Chamberlain can only play wide.
Even as strikers, Walcott and Giroud can be one dimensional. The former relies on his team-mates to capitalise on his movement, either by utilising the space he creates or feeding him the ball. Giroud, more of a target man (but with superb technique) loves to have players around him and needs to be found right in front of goal before he scores. But Welbeck is different.
A strong forward with electric pace, the 25-year-old looks after possession carefully. He has all the tools to hold the ball up, but can also run at his opponents when the opportunity presents itself.
His movement is also fantastic, opening spaces to bring others into play. When wide, Theo Walcott thrives off Olivier Giroud’s flicks through the opposition backline, but Alexis Sánchez is much less of a combination player and thrives when there are spaces to attack. The Chilean has 10 goals in 34 Arsenal appearances when starting with Giroud (seven in 27 Premier League games) but, last season, managed 12 goals in 13 starts with Welbeck playing up front (eight in seven in the league). For reference, Alexis has ten goals this season: seven came in his eight starts with Walcott up front; the other three came in his 13 starts with Giroud leading the line.
Olivier Giroud is fantastic for Arsenal, but he seems to stifle Alexis Sánchez, and the best Arsenal team will have the Chilean in top form. The argument against Walcott leading the line is he isn’t robust enough and doesn’t involve himself in build up play – two criticisms which can’t be levelled at Welbeck.
The former Manchester United man is also fantastic out wide. He’s selfless and diligent defensively, he’s blisteringly quick and makes smart decisions offensively. Unlike Joel Campbell and Theo Walcott, he constantly wants the ball and is always a safe option. Unlike Alexis Sánchez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, he’s always happy to run onto it rather than have it to feet constantly.
My biggest issue with Welbeck would be his movement on the break. The fact I have to be that specific is a compliment in itself. His movement is generally good, but when Arsenal are attacking at speed he did get in the way at times last season, failing to drag a defender across or run into a wider space, cutting off the options for the man on the ball. After so long out of action, you’d hope that’s something he’s watched back and tried to work on. Also, in his defence, Welbeck only started five Arsenal games with Mesut Özil providing service from his favourite number 10 role, netting his first Arsenal goal against Aston Villa before scoring a hat-trick against Galatasaray and the winner at Old Trafford in the FA Cup quarter-final. That’s right, five of Welbeck’s eight Arsenal goals in 2014/15 came in three of the five games he started centrally with Mesut Özil behind him.
Some people will complain about his finishing, but he has shown in the past he’s a very good finisher and he just needs to add consistency to that.
At the end of the day, Arsenal just don’t have a player combining the physical and mental attributes that Welbeck has. An incredibly intelligent footballer, he provides something different up front and out wide. Beat Leicester without him and he can drive our title charge home. Hopefully that starts at Old Trafford at the end of the month, we all remember what he did last time we won there.