Danny Welbeck scored his first ever senior hat-trick last Wednesday night, as an Arsenal side that was down to 10 men tore apart Turkish side Galatasaray in the Champions League.
As you’ll remember, Welbeck was one of the main casualties of Louis van Gaal’s first two months in charge at Manchester United, with the Dutchman allowing the striker to depart for the Emirates on transfer deadline day.
It emerged a couple of weeks ago that van Gaal had let Welbeck go because, “he doesn’t have the record of Robin van Persie or Wayne Rooney”. In short, van Gaal felt that Welbeck was dispensable because he did not score enough goals.
Whilst some readers may be nodding sagely and agreeing with van Gaal, this statement betrays a serious chink in logic. Comparing the performances of van Persie and Rooney with that of Welbeck over the last few seasons is like comparing apples and pears. Yes, Welbeck is a striker, but his opportunities in a centre forward position at United were so infrequent that it really was impossible to judge him in that position.
When Welbeck moved to the Emirates, for me, the jury was still out. I wasn’t sure whether or not he would be able to cope with being the main man for a big club, and whether his touch was good enough to play up front on his own. But one thing is for sure, I knew that we’d find out how good a player Welbeck is.
The role that Sir Alex Ferguson crafted for Welbeck was a dogged, defensive one. The home-grown United product was often asked to press high up the pitch whilst also getting back to support his full back. The fact Welbeck was effective in that position cannot be denied, but what is clear is that this was not a position in which Welbeck could firmly demonstrate his ability as a striker.
Surely van Gaal knew that. Surely the Dutchman knew that goals could not be the only measure with which to analyse a player whose main role over the last few years has not been to score goals. Yet this was exactly the yardstick used, and this measurement resulted in Welbeck being allowed to leave.
On Wednesday night, we saw what Welbeck is capable of when he is allowed to play in his preferred position. Okay, so Galatasaray are not the most formidable of opposition, but the fact remains that Welbeck led a line that absolutely decimated them. We should not forget that this was in the Champions League – a competition that Manchester United is not even in.
For Arsenal fans there will be a delicious irony about van Gaal’s comments – the Dutchman says that Welbeck does not score enough, and then – in his preferred position – Welbeck starts scoring. What Welbeck has proved is that he can score in the big games for a big club – this was not an opportunity afforded him by his previous manager.
Given that Robin van Persie is 31 and injury-prone, Wayne Rooney is arguably past his peak and plays better in a withdrawn role, and Radamel Falcao is only on loan and is coming back from a serious and career threatening injury; there was certainly a case for Welbeck being allowed to stake his claim up front (particularly if van Gaal was going to play two strikers). This case was dismissed by van Gaal. But Welbeck has now played a key role in furthering Arsenal’s Champions League aspirations, while the club he left last month continues to resemble something of a basketcase.
Welbeck might have been reticent to leave his hometown club, but in all likelihood, any reticence will almost certainly have evaporated. This is his time to shine.