International week can drag, with Euro-area World Cup qualifiers having long descended into a quagmire of identikit tactics, predictable scores and, frankly, sub-standard football. Jonathan Wilson disciples may cry foul, but World Cup tournament football, by its very nature, offers far greater diversity, while the Champions League has become the game’s blue riband competition.
And if the football this week hasn’t exactly inspired, then there has been little success for the home nations either. Gordon Strachan’s Scotland side was beaten comfortably by Marouanne Fellaini’s Belgium at Hampden Park, while fans in both the north and south of Ireland ended Friday night disappointed. Wales, sans Gareth Bale, lost miserably in Macedonia. None of the quartet will qualify for Brazil 2014.
England emerged victorious, however, with Wembley cheering the home side to a 4-0 thrashing of a Moldova side that has collected just five points in Group H. The result bares little relevance to England’s performance in Brazil next summer, should the Three Lions qualify at all. That qualification may depend both on the performance and absence of Manchester United’s Danny Welbeck.
The Longsight-born striker was much criticised last season for scoring just twice in the Premier League; much of it justified, with the striker’s finishing far more timid than the player’s all-round excellence demands. By contrast Welbeck’s international tally now stands eight in 18 matches after the 22-year-old scored a brace against the Moldovans. He has started just 10 games for his country, having become the country’s leading striker under new England manager Roy Hodgson.
Welbeck remains raw, and his finishing can be a frustration, although he is scoring an increasingly impressive range of goals. The tap-in put away in the 45th minute of England’s victory over Moldova on Friday night was as pleasing as the smartly taken goal early in the second half, when the United forward’s sublime first touch allowed him to beat both defender and goalkeeper in one motion.
Indeed, Welbeck’s career has taken such a leap forward in recent weeks that there is something approaching national mourning at the forward’s absence from next Tuesday’s match with Ukraine in Kiev. Roy Hodgson remonstrated vociferously with referee Paolo Tagliavento over Welbeck’s second caution in the qualifying tournament, while former Red Gary Neville left the Italian in no doubt about England’s upset.
Welbeck received a controversial yellow card for ‘kicking the ball away at a free-kick’ after the striker shot having been flagged offside. It is no reason to miss a potentially career-defining football match, especially not after Welbeck had previously received a booking for ‘diving’ against Montenegro – a decision clearly demonstrated as incorrect by television replays.
“The booking for Danny Welbeck has overshadowed the night,” Hodgson admitted on Friday.
“We were already very short of front players. I don’t believe it was a yellow card offence, and the other one he got in Montenegro, we should have had a penalty and he was booked for diving. He’s been unbelievably unfortunate. It makes life difficult for us. It doesn’t get much more unfortunate than that but we’re getting used to dealing with misfortune.”
Perhaps more impressive than Welbeck’s goals at Wembley, however, was another demonstration of the Englishman’s tactical flexibility. The England manager once again deployed Welbeck at inside-left on Friday night, one of a forward triumvirate, with Theo Walcott on the Lions’ right-flank, and Ricky Lambert through the middle. The role has both suited Welbeck and released the forward to score liberally at international level, where he is free to cut in, shoot, or make late runs into danger areas.
The left-flank has rarely benefited Welbeck for his club though – a role Sir Alex Ferguson asked the academy graduate to take for much of last season. The difference, it seems, is Hodgson’s choice to deploy three central midfielders, which has released Welbeck from many of the defensive duties required at Old Trafford.
This success at international level poses an interesting question: could the forward’s good form for England on the left be replicated for United? The thought is, of course, counter-intuitive, and it would take a significant tactical re-jiggling of David Moyes side to play with three in the engine room. But with so little quality available to the Scot in that position Welbeck offers an attractive option.
Through more than a decade at Everton Moyes has honed a system that almost invariably uses split strikers, with a shadow or an attacking midfielder supporting a lone forward; a system Ferguson might instantly recognise. And Moyes has earmarked Wayne Rooney for the shadow role at Old Trafford, although Fellaini scored 11 goals deployed in a similar manner for Everton last season.
One area Moyes has typically differed in his approach to Sir Alex is in a propensity to use central midfielders rather than foward on the wing – Steven Pienaar is a classic case – and another is demanding a high pressing game.
Neither is a trait of Hodgson’s teams though; Welbeck’s inclusion on the left under the veteran coach contradicts the tasks demanded by Moyes. Welbeck played in very close support of Lambert at Wembley in what looked very much like a modern 4-3-3. Nor was United’s man typically asked to cover Ashley Cole at left-back. He will not enjoy that luxury under the Reds’ new management.
First, Welbeck needs to find a permanent role in the United side to match the status he now enjoys with the national team. Yet, in the player’s preferred central role Moyes will deploy Robin van Persie and Rooney barring injury.
On the left Welbeck may enjoy a greater run though; the question for the player is whether the defensive duties demanded by Moyes restricts his goalscoring exploits. History suggests it will.
The left-field tactical choice might be to ape Hodgson’s narrow formation, focus on United’s area of strength in attack, while deprioritizing the club’s traditional whimsy for touchline-hugging wingers. It is, after all, not an area where Moyes enjoys plentiful resources.
Nor can the manager count on the successful deployment of two central midfielders, with talent so thin on the ground despite Fellaini’s arrival.
It’s as unlikely path though, at least at United, leaving Welbeck freer to enjoy the international goalscoring on show against Moldova at Wembley than is probable for his club in the coming season.