Why Danny Welbeck divides opinion
Few current English footballers divide opinion like new Arsenal striker Danny Welbeck.
Whereas others -- Joey Barton, for example -- create such chasms because of their vitriolic personality, with Welbeck the debate is purely about his playing style.
There's no reason to dislike Welbeck as a person. He seems sensible, down-to-earth, hard-working and intelligent by the stereotypical standards of English footballers. Sir Alex Ferguson often mentioned his cockiness, but it was cockiness in a cheeky, mischievous way rather than sheer arrogance. By common consent, Welbeck is a nice lad.
As a player, he's more controversial. The reason, perhaps, is that Welbeck is the ultimate modern footballer in an overwhelmingly conservative sport. This is the age of universality, where players must contribute significantly away from their precise job description. And Welbeck is in the peculiar position of being an undeniably fine all-round footballer, despite being unconvincing at his specific job on the field.
That, essentially, explains the debate. To those who understand, believe in and embrace universality, Welbeck is entirely useful. To those who believe that a striker's job is to score goals, and score goals over everything else, 16 million pounds is a colossal waste of money.
Certainly, Welbeck isn't the first striker to have struggled with goal scoring. Earlier this year, he was likened in the tabloid press to Emile Heskey, the England striker who became infamous for his poor finishing at international level, despite appearing an excellent all-round striker in his younger years.
Like Welbeck, Heskey was sometimes shoved out wide, playing on the left for England around the time of World Cup 2002. However, Heskey was a very different player to Welbeck -- a pure "big man" playing solely to get the best out of the "little man," Michael Owen or Wayne Rooney, with his hold-up play. He was big and strong, but that was about it.
Welbeck fits more with the idea of universality in this highly technical era. In particular, his passing statistics are always excellent. He is measured and precise with his distribution, his pass completion rate being similar to that of his new teammates at Arsenal, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere. This is extremely rare for a forward, but it's been consistent over his playing career.
He's also highly tactically disciplined and versatile, capable of performing man-marking jobs on opposition full-backs or deep-lying midfielders. Again, this is a perfect example of universality -- a forward celebrated for his defensive qualities.
What's more, statistics exaggerate Welbeck's goal-scoring deficiencies. His goal-per-game ratio looks so poor because he's so frequently been used as a substitute, and because he's spent much of his career out wide. Nevertheless, everyone can remember examples of when Welbeck's finishing has let him down -- most obviously in Manchester United's 1-1 home draw against Bayern Munich last season, when he tamely chipped at Manuel Neuer in a one-on-one situation. His finishing must improve.
Though he plays in a completely different position, Welbeck is comparable to David Luiz, a wonderful footballer hampered by the fact that he often fails at his main job -- defending -- most obvious in Brazil's 7-1 defeat to Germany in the World Cup semifinal. To some he's a liability, to others he's worth 50 million euros. Again, it depends whether you agree with the concept of universality.
Welbeck seems a good fit at Arsenal for his ball retention skills, tactical versatility, nationality -- manager Arsene Wenger has repeatedly emphasised his desire to play more British players in recent years -- and the fact that Arsenal needed another forward in Olivier Giroud's injury absence.
There's also a good argument that his all-round nature will suit Arsenal more than Manchester United. His former club have a fine tradition of playing out-and-out goal scorers; the likes of Andy Cole, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Javier Hernandez are obvious examples of players who finished superbly, but contributed relatively little else. Radamel Falcao is another.
Arsenal, in stark contrast, have rarely deployed pure strikers. Wenger hasn't wanted a "fox in the box" since the ill-fated signing of Francis Jeffers, and even his pure strikers such as Emmanuel Adebayor and Giroud have offered more in terms of link play than the aforementioned Manchester United players. Thierry Henry, a creator as much as a goal scorer at times, will always be the ultimate Wenger forward.
Van Nistelrooy is at the other end of the universality debate, a pure goal poacher, and his Manchester United career summed this up. He achieved record-breaking goal-scoring statistics, but United endured their worst Premier League era under Ferguson.
Ferguson mentioned the difference between his and Wenger's perception of forwards in his autobiography when discussing Van Nistelrooy, a player who had a somewhat fractious relationship with Arsenal. "Arsene had a thing about Van Nistelrooy," Ferguson said. "I remember him saying he'd had a chance to sign Ruud but had decided he was not good enough to play for Arsenal. I agreed with him in the sense that he may not have been a great footballer. But he was a great goalscorer."
Welbeck is the opposite -- a great footballer, but not a great goal scorer.
Robin van Persie, of course, is another example of player who has represented both Wenger's Arsenal and Ferguson's United. His journey supports the theory. At Arsenal he was a creative No. 10, and later a false nine. At Manchester United he was a ruthless No. 9: Wenger wants more artistry and vision, Ferguson wanted goals.
It would be ironic if Welbeck developed into a pure goal scorer under Wenger, but realistically he doesn't need to. Van Persie's final season was the antithesis of what Wenger wants: it was ultra-reliance upon one player, whereas Wenger wants goals from a variety of sources. Welbeck will have a responsibility to score, but so will Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez, Giroud, Lukas Podolski, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil.
Welbeck's arrival at Arsenal has also prompted inevitable comparisons with Mario Balotelli, who has joined Liverpool for an identical fee: 16 million pounds. Again, it's easy to find huge contrasts between the two forwards: Balotelli has problems in terms of work rate, discipline and tactical ability, although he's unquestionably capable of performances Welbeck can only dream of. Balotelli only found a teammate with 50 percent of passes on his Liverpool debut, well below Welbeck's usual average.
Balotelli is the greater talent and the purer striker. But Welbeck, for a variety of reasons, is valued at the same price, because, perhaps more than any other Premier League forward, he's the ultra-modern footballer.