It has been widely reported today that Danny Welbeck, England striker and all-around epitomy of potential, has signed a new deal at Premier League runners-up Manchester United. The deal is apparently for the next five seasons, on vastly increased money, and is (I’d assume) aimed toward waving away speculation regarding his long-term future.
The elephant in the room with regard to this snippet of news is Utd’s ongoing pursuit of Arsenal captain and Player of the Year Robin Van Persie. Every detail of that (as yet) non-transfer has been cascaded across newspapers, football forums and online news providers like so much wedding confetti for the best part of two months now, with no resolution yet in sight. Opinions on the deal vary greatly, with doubts being cast upon Van Persie’s fitness, his ongoing (and future) form or lack thereof, the sanity of committing £50m+ to a 29 year old with no resale value, and the wisdom of marginalizing further the current striking options at the club.
It does seem a little coincidental that the news of the United forward’s new deal came so closely after speculation was aired that Arsenal were interested in a part-exchange deal, with Welbeck representing the make-weight in much the same way that Keith Gillespie did when United signed Andy Cole from Newcastle. Naturally the insinuation is not that this deal was rushed through in order to curb such talk, but the over-zealous and microscopic reporting of what amounts to fairly mundane club business suggests at least that United wished for the over-amplification, which in itself makes a fairly strong statement. United will not be dictated to, it seems.
I’ve seen it opined that United would be silly to allow Arsene Wenger to dictate terms as if he was the power-broker in this whole Van Persie scenario, and it gave me pause for thought. “Arsenal should in no way be in the superior position here as far as negotiating is concerned.” While Wenger does, at least in theory, hold some of the aces in this particular deck, it would also be fair to say that extenuating circumstances have a serious effect on the influence to which he can impose his will here.
If, as has been reported, Van Persie has privately expressed his wish to move to United (and one can certainly infer that United will be party to this knowledge), Wenger finds himself in yet another quandary. He simply cannot afford to play hard-ball, given that in Van Persie he has a player not known for his aversion to throwing a sulk when things do not go his way. When one takes into the equation the contracted wages Van Persie finds himself picking up every week, the amount of money Wenger would have to sacrifice in order to maintain his captain’s continued association with the club could also be described as bordering on the astronomical. Twenty million pounds as a transfer fee is not to be sniffed at, and a decision to then pay £100k+ per week (a figure without bonuses, add-ons, etc) to such a potentially disillusioned and maybe even disruptive influence as Van Persie could represent would seem to be a little unusual, especially given Wenger’s reputation for fastidiousness with the club’s finances.
Further, the fact that Van Persie could sign a pre-contract for free with any club of his choosing in the middle of the upcoming season must weigh heavily on Wenger’s decision-making processes.
There is no doubt that in pure footballing terms, Van Persie is worth, at the very least, the thirty million pounds which Wenger seems intent on relieving his old nemesis of, but with these financial factors being incredibly important, the logical conclusion of this would seem to be Van Persie’s signature on a contract at Old Trafford, for a fee of something closer to £15m than £30m. And, importantly, none of that is Wenger’s fault. Yet again he finds himself in the position of having brought through a player whom very few had heard of, before watching helplessly as money, ambition, or maybe just disillusionment (as would seem to be the case with Van Persie), forces him to admit that his club is not as important to these players as it is to him. Pretentious, meaningless badge-kissing aside, loyalty in footballers is very difficult to find, and there have definitely been more Pierre Van Hooijdonks than Matt Le Tissiers in the Premiership in recent years. Rarely do we see a player come through a youth academy and forge a career with his boyhood club, and I’m yet to decide on whether that is automatically a bad thing or not.
Which brings us nicely back to Welbeck. The youngster who represented Manchester United at youth level, who has made his way into the first team ahead of the club’s record signing, and who has been heralded as the future for England, in terms of the latest on the treadmill of supposed potential successors to Alan Shearer. The guy who has signed a new contract for big money, and who, to be frank, I do not think has earned the plaudits or the five-year deal which has been the subject of so many press articles in the last couple of days.
Looking purely at the stats for a second; Welbeck has scored a total of ten league goals in his fledgling United career. In thirty-eight games. In an article on this site a while back, I poured scorn on Andy Carroll’s goalscoring record for Newcastle before his record-breaking transfer to Liverpool, and now, as a United fan, I’m a little horrified, but not surprised, to see that Welbeck’s goals record far more closely resembles Carroll’s than it does Van Persie’s. Or put another way: in their last 38 league games respectively, Van Persie has scored three times as many goals as Welbeck has, thirty to ten. So the idea that a new contract for Welbeck might be some form of subtle consolation prize for United fans just in case Sir Alex Ferguson fails in his attempt to lure the flying Dutchman away from the Emirates is a little galling, especially if said contract proves in any way to be even the most miniscule fly in the proverbial ointment which prevents a world-class player from signing on at Old Trafford in the first place. Because let’s be under no illusions: Danny Welbeck, while being a good player, and who is on the face of it a good professional, certainly cannot be considered to be world-class.
In a list of strikers in terms of the benefits they can bring to the team (and I’ll include Van Persie here because hypothetically at least he belongs in this equation, at least until it becomes clear which badge he’ll be kissing on the opening day of 2012-13) Welbeck would be fifth on my list of United strikers for the upcoming season. Behind Rooney, Van Persie, and Hernandez. And yes, that’s right: behind Dimitar Berbatov. I have seen a United fan on a football forum mention that he believes Ferguson should offload Welbeck before everyone realizes how much they have been hoodwinked by such an over-rated player, and unfortunately I agree with this. If the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, then Danny Welbeck’s greatest feat has been convincing the world that he exists as something significantly more than that which he actually is.
Just before the wave of outrage hits here, let me ask all you United fans (the rest of you can read on too if you like) a very simple question: A ball falls in the box, ricochets around a little, and finds its way into the sphere of a man in a red shirt. Who would you put there, given the choice? Welbeck or Hernandez? Welbeck or Rooney? Welbeck or, dare I say it, Berbatov? Personally I’d take any of them over Welbeck, even considering how radical it seems in the eyes of some to choose the £30m+, 2010/11 Premier League top goalscorer over a 21 year old who simply hasn’t done anything of particular note yet in his career. I’d have taken an 80% fit Michael Owen over Welbeck too, if such a thing actually existed any more.
Welback has been the beneficiary of some astounding good fortune at international level too. Like a house of cards falling down, England strikers have dropped one after the other into the oblivion associated with the treatment table over the past five years, leaving Welback as the one remaining trick, the point of his personal card pairing barely, but vitally, visible over the rubble and the chaos of the rest of the cards laying on the table.
The aforementioned Owen (who at 32, barring injuries, would certainly be both England’s record goalscorer and their current focal point) notwithstanding, Welbeck has also seen Dean Ashton (who for a while looked like Shearer’s natural successor) fall by the wayside, and Peter Crouch inexplicably fail to remain in contention despite an almost unprecedented goalscoring record for the Three Lions. Theo Walcott’s sublime hat-trick against Croatia was not enough to warrant him being played as a central striker, Darren Bent (who would almost certainly have led the line at Euro2012) succumbed to injury, Jermain Defoe’s blonde rinse and family issues saw him spend most of the season as a substitute, Andy Johnson (another 20 goal man) never quite recovered from knee issues in 2010; even Wayne Rooney’s ban for the first two matches of Euro2012 contrived to make Welbeck the recipient of a modern-day Red Sea parting. England strikers falling (for one reason or another) to the left and to the right, and Welbeck, while not being anything like the finished article, bore the closest resemblance to one under the circumstances.
And of course, cometh the hour, cometh the man….. right? Sadly not. Nine caps have yielded only two goals for the striker, which seems to be about on a par with his scoring rate since he made his professional debut. Loan spells have seen a return of six goals in twenty-six league matches for Sunderland, and two in eight for Preston North End. Or, put another way, a worse scoring return for Preston than David Beckham, a midfielder, had when he was there all those years ago.
So what is it exactly which creates this perpetual illusion, the atmosphere which surrounds Welbeck to the point where he is described and represented as something so much more than he is? Personally, I feel like I’m looking at the Kingpriest of Istar (random Dragonlance series reference there): while nearly everyone around me is blinded by the light surrounding the man, I’m absolutely sure I’m looking past the luminescent illusion and seeing him for what he really is. A reasonably quick, technically proficient but clumsy (in the way of a Labrador puppy: the word ‘gamboling’ is bouncing around in my head right now, urging me to make use of it), taller than average professional footballer, who has benefited heavily from injuries to his peers at both club and international level, as well as managerial disdain for the likes of Defoe, Crouch, Berbatov, et al…. If I had to pick another player to draw parallels with, the first to come to mind is Darius Vassell, whom albeit didn’t benefit from the exaggerated acclaim which is a compulsory part of the Man Utd staffer’s package. It certainly isn’t Robin Van Persie.
So, despite the majority seeming to be against me on this, I’m a little bit perplexed, and even more disappointed that Welbeck is apparently deemed the future of the club in such a vital position. I’m confused as to why Chicharito Hernandez looks like being the fourth choice striker in the squad, or worse, the odd man out, if Ferguson lands Van Persie. I’m genuinely sympathetic toward Berbatov, who did all he could in his own way, and seems to have suffered as a result of not being Carlos Tevez (whom, lest we forget, was also deemed surplus to requirements), and for whom scoring the most goals in the Premiership was not enough to secure him a first-team place over Welbeck.
More than anything though, I’m a little bit resentful that in a week where I’ve been envisaging Robin Van Persie in a Utd shirt, I’ve been force-fed a striker who is anything but.