London – Gary Neville was baffled. So was Bryan Robson. Football writers inevitably questioned Manchester United’s decision to sell Danny Welbeck to Arsenal for £16 million after he scored both goals in England’s 2-0 win over Switzerland in Basel.
Two things persuaded Louis van Gaal to allow Welbeck to leave and the surprise is anyone is really surprised.
Firstly, United was able to bring in Radamel Falcao from Monaco for a season-long loan for a fee of £6 million. In his last 139 games for FC Porto, Atletico Madrid and Monaco, Falcao has scored 104 goals. In 51 internationals, the Colombia striker has netted 20 goals. While there is no guarantee any player will continue such outstanding statistics, there is little reason to believe Falcao’s goals will dry up in a Premier League not noted for its defensive strengths.
In contrast, the goals in Basel were Welbeck’s first for club or country in 20 games, his first for England in over a year and nine internationals. In the past two seasons Welbeck has scored 20 goals in 90 appearances for United. His 10 goals in 28 games for England are more impressive than his club figures though four of those goals came against doormat teams San Marino and Moldova.
While Welbeck, whose work-rate, movement and unselfish running off the ball contribute far more to a team than just goals, a strike-rate of one every four games swayed Van Gaal into letting Welbeck join the Gunners. Welbeck would also have been fourth in the pecking order behind Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie and Falcao.
Welbeck has started only 28 league games for United in the previous two seasons so it is not only Van Gaal who had doubts about the player. True, £16 million may seem a bargain for someone who is a regular in the England squad, though at the same time it can also be seen as pretty good business for someone who would probably have started single-figure league matches for United this season.
Van Gaal, as economical with words as he wants his new look team to be with conceding goals, said of Welbeck: “He doesn’t have the record of van Persie or Rooney. That’s why we let him go, also because of Falcao.”
On Saturday, Van Gaal will announce the most eagerly awaited United lineup for a Premier League match in many years. All of the big name summer signings, who cost a combined £150 million — Falcao, Luke Shaw, Angel di Maria, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera — are, for the first time, available to play against Queens Park Rangers, whose Rio Ferdinand makes an emotional return to Old Trafford.
The likelihood is that Van Gaal will ditch his favoured 3-5-2 formation for 4-3-3 with Juan Mata, United’s £37.5 million January signing from Chelsea, the probable fall guy.
Phil Jones’ hamstring injury may rule him out which could mean a back four of Rafael, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Shaw. In midfield, Blind would be given the holding role with Herrera and di Maria wide behind a mouthwatering attack of Falcao, Rooney and Van Persie.
The ax would be hard on Mata, who has scored seven goals in his last nine club games, a return any midfielder would be proud of. Yet the Spain international can only play central midfield because he does not have the pace to operate on the flanks. The arrival of the summer six and the probability that Rooney will fill a slightly deeper role than usual means it will be difficult to accommodate Mata even though his passing, movement, vision and finishing have made him so effective.
Welbeck starts his Arsenal career against Manchester City today, the Gunners having lost only one of their last 17 home games against the champions. Unlike during his United career, where he was mostly used in a wider role, Welbeck will be in what he considers his best position of central striker for Arsenal, certainly until Olivier Giroud is fit again.
Time will tell whether Van Gaal was right to sell Welbeck to a rival club, but while he will start more matches that he would have at United, the smart money would be on Falcao scoring more goals.
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EVEN WHEN England wins, it can’t win. The 2-0 victory in Switzerland was the team’s best display for a long time and saw the ideal start to the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.
The problem is, thanks to UEFA’s bird-brained idea of making the finals a 24-team contest instead of 16, qualification is as assured as it can be for England unless it somehow manages to finish fourth in a group also containing San Marino, Lithuania, Estonia and Slovenia. There may be banana skin along the way, but England could easily finish its qualifying campaign with 10 wins.
Taking friendlies out of the equation, it means England will not have a meaningful match until June, 2016. Only then, when it comes up against Europe’s heavyweights, will we know the progress the team has made under Roy Hodgson.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.