LONDON – It is almost three months since Manchester United sold Danny Welbeck to Arsenal for £16 million because Louis van Gaal did not think the striker was good enough to play for the Reds.
“He doesn’t have the record of (Robin) van Persie or (Wayne) Rooney and that is the standard,” said van Gaal, whose team meets the Gunners at Emirates Stadium on Saturday in a game which, for the first time in Premier League history, has no significant bearing on the title. “That is why we let him go — because of (Rademal) Falcao, but also the youngsters who can fit in.”
Since his move to Arsenal, Welbeck has scored 10 goals in 19 games for club and country — five apiece. In the same period, van Persie has scored five in 12, Rooney seven in 11, including two for United, and Falcao one in five.
United’s decision to sell Welbeck split opinion. He scored 29 goals in 142 appearances for United, not overly impressive figures for a striker, though 52 of those were as a sub while he was often played in a wide role rather than his preferred central position. Since signing for Arsenal, where he has played regularly in his best position, Welbeck’s career has experienced an upturn.
For United to receive £16 million for a fringe player can be seen as decent business. For Arsenal to buy an established England international who has hit the ground running with goals can be seen as even better business. A striker is ultimately rated on the number of goals he scores, but Welbeck believes all goal scorers need to play in their best position before they can be judged.
He said: “People can say I’ve not scored enough goals, but you put the best strikers on the wing in a four-man midfield and see if they score goals. If you’re getting goals and getting a run of games in your preferred position, your confidence is going to grow and performances are going to grow as well.”
The conclusion is that the transfer was right for both clubs, though the worry for United, which has won only four of the first 11 matches, is the curse of the former player — Welbeck scoring the winner, or even scoring, and instant verdicts will be made. In Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal also has a striker who has been a revelation since his summer move from Barcelona.
The game also sees the meeting of the two most injured squads in the Premier League. United is without Marcos Rojo, Danny Blind, Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard and possibly Jonny Evans, Rafael, Phil Jones, Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera and Falcao.
Both teams’ main problems are in defense, though a United attack of Adnan Januzaj, Marouane, Fellaini, Juan Mata, Rooney, van Persie and Angel di Maria would test Arsenal’s notoriously shaky back line.
Arsenal’s walking wounded list has been reduced to Mesut Ozil, Mathieu Debuchy and Laurent Koscielny. With Theo Walcott returning after a long-term injury, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain confident after successful displays with England, plus Welbeck, Alexis and the fit again Olivier Giroud, Arsenal has the potential to test the best defenses and United’s comes nowhere near that category.
If it comes down to a tactical battle with substitutions key, van Gaal has the advantage over Arsene Wenger, who seems to have a blind spot for such changes, whereas the Dutchman has proved so adept in bringing on the right players at the right time.
It has been 3½ years since Arsenal beat United. In their last 10 meetings, United have won 20 points to the Gunners’ five, scoring 20 goals to Arsenal’s six. True, United’s 8-2 victory in 2011 gives its goal-tally a distorted boost, but whichever team he selects, van Gaal will be confident of carrying on where Sir Alex Ferguson (plus David Moyes briefly) left off.
* * *
ENGLAND’S INEVITABLE qualification for Euro 2016 took a step closer with the 3-1 win over Slovenia at Wembley. While the other seven groups remain reasonably competitive, Group E is a matter of when, not if England quality, especially with the top two guaranteed a place in France.
Should England beat Lithuania (home) and Slovenia (away) next March and June, respectively, and other results work in its favor, it is possible that with four games remaining — including one guaranteed three points against San Marino — Roy Hodgson’s side can get the cigars out.
The 3-1 friendly win in Scotland on Tuesday meant England has won six games in a row. It last won six consecutive matches in June 2006 when it went on to win eight straight.
Given the strength, or rather weakness, of the opposition since England left Brazil with its tail between its legs, any considered judgment on its progress would be premature. For all of Scotland’s brave Euro 2016 qualifying performances, the gap between the Auld Enemy was almost a canyon — Championship players versus Champions League players was Graeme Souness’ verdict.
Hodgson has acknowledged he will not really know how England has advanced until it plays a good team in a competitive game. That is 19 months away, but in the meantime, so far so good even if the main interest in watching England steamroll its way through the group is Wayne Rooney’s chase of Sir Bobby Charlton’s record of 49 goals.
Rooney, who has scored seven goals in his last seven internationals, has 46 from 101 internationals. Charlton’s hold on his record is now only temporary.
Overtaking Peter Shilton’s record of 125 caps and even Steven Gerrard and David Beckham will take Rooney a couple of years, but in 2015 with eight matches confirmed the England captain is set to overtake Billy Wright (105), Frank Lampard and Charlton (106), Ashley Cole (107) and Bobby Moore (108).
A worry for Hodgson is the over-reliance on Rooney and Welbeck for goals. The pair has 59 England goals between them, the remainder of the last 23-man squad had an accumulative 19.
The midfield against Slovenia — Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, Jack Wilshere and Raheem Sterling — had not scored a single goal in 67 England appearances.
England ended the 2014 international season on a high note, having lost two of 12 games, but it was the two that mattered against Italy and Uruguay at the World Cup.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.