It was a little under a month ago when David Moyes questioned Danny Welbeck’s application to his craft. Here, said the Scot, was a player in a need of a little more practice; a striker who had scored just two goals in 40 games the previous season. Little wonder Welbeck has developed a reputation for a high quality all-round game, let down by woeful finishing.
Such was the manager’s concern that he publicly warned the Longsight-born player to be “last off the training field,” after practicing “free-kicks, shooting from tight angles or bending them in.”
“I’ve got to say we had a word with him about a month ago and we said that he needs to be the last off the training field,” said Moyes just before the Christmas break.
“Wayne’s out there practising his finishing each day, whether it’s taking free-kicks, shooting from tight angles or bending them in, whatever it may be Wayne’s practising. I said: ‘Danny, you need to be out there every day finishing, even if it’s 15 minutes at the end.'”
The rejoinder was swift though. “I have been doing that ever since I have been at United,” said the striker in what threatened to become an embarrassing row, albeit for the briefest moment. “Maybe the manager has not seen me on the training pitch as much. Obviously, at Manchester United, I want to be working hard and I have been doing that ever since I was a young kid.”
Welbeck’s rebuke sounded a little further east of complacent than is typical for a player schooled under Sir Alex Ferguson. Extra practice was, well, a habit supposedly begun under Eric Cantona’s tutelage, and drilled into subsequent generations as United looked to replicated the ‘class of ’92’.
Fortunately Welbeck’s feet talk a better game. Indeed, the forward has scored six in his last six matches since Robin van Persie was injured against Shaktar Donetsk on 10 December last year. Two against Aston Villa in Birmingham, another in the Reds’ victory over West Ham United at Old Trafford, then more against Norwich City, Tottenham Hotspur, and then in victory over Swansea City on Saturday.
In total Welbeck has nine goals in 21 matches this season; eight in 11 Premier League starts. It’s a fine haul for a player who has oft been accused of being wasteful in front of goal. Worse, Welbeck’s profligacy has shaped to hold back a career that for four seasons has been on the cusp of taking off, but no more.
No longer. Welbeck is now every inch a Premier League striker of rare bread. Pace, power and a fantastic first touch have now been joined by, it seems, a new ability to finish.
In the six there have been some fine strikes too, with the kind of variety common among the élite. The flick to score United’s second against Swansea demonstrated a lover’s touch, while the deft chip to grab United’s consolation against Spurs betrayed a new confidence. He rounded the ‘keeper against Norwich, and drilled it low and hard to open the scoring when West Ham came to town. You get the picture.
Swansea proved another uplifting moment for the striker and indeed the team after three losses on the bounce. Cup defeats to the Swans and Sunderland, and the New Year’s Day victory for Spurs at Old Trafford, had threatened to completely derail the Reds’ season. It is, says Welbeck, a base from which to build.
“We’ve set a platform now and really want to build on that and gather some momentum,” Welbeck told MUTV on Saturday.
“The next match is the most important now. That’s what you’ve got to do, take it one game at a time. Being a Manchester lad and being a United fan, there is extra passion inside me and it does hurt me when I see the team losing. It hurts a lot to see United not winning.
“I can understand why fans are concerned. We are not around the Champions League spots at the moment. We need to get our form back and just win the next matches.”
Victory over Swansea may indeed provide a platform for United, but it is injury first to Robin van Persie and then Wayne Rooney that has proffered Welbeck his stage this season. It is an opportunity that the striker has genuinely grasped, not only in goals scored, but improved metrics across the board.
Welbeck’s 54 per cent of shots on target is 12 percentage points higher than last season, for example, while the player’s passing has also improved. The Mancunian has created fewer chances this season, but then he is finally leading the line.
The story doesn’t end there though. Welbeck’s next goal must surely be to achieve a level of consistency he is yet to find over a slow-burning career. After all, now 23, Welbeck is no longer a kid.
Having made his début in September 2008, Welbeck has racked up just 124 appearances – 81 starts – for United in the five years that have passed. While the player spent a season on loan at Sunderland, for too long Welbeck has been a bit part, or worse, an afterthought.
Yet, in a World Cup year the striker could not only cement his place in the United side, but lead England on the world stage in Brazil. Probably alongside his team-mate Rooney. Now that’s progress.
“I want some more goals, I can tell you that, I want some more goals,” said Welbeck recently, demonstrating the kind of hunger of which Moyes will surely approve. “I have got a figure in my mind, I want to score plenty more goals.”
Perhaps it’s enough motivation to stay on the training ground for those few extra minutes.
Ravel and Danny – a sidebar
There is a little under seven miles between Longsight and Wythenshaw, the childhood homes of Ravel Morrison and Danny Welbeck, but on the pitch there is now more than 200. While Welbeck appears to have finally made his big United breakthrough this season, Morrison was shipped out to West Ham United 18 months ago. It has proven to be a blessing for the troubled 20-year-old, who could yet join his long-time friend in the England squad heading off the Brazil next summer after a fine season.
But it is Morrison’s Tweets that have caught the eye, with the midfielder first hailing a Welbeck goal against Manchester City in January 2012 with the now infamous cry “My boy WELBZ ZUPZUP say nada ahahahahahahah xxxxx,” before claiming that “welbz is dat guy” after another in February 2013.