How good can Danny Welbeck be?
The question posed is not merely an academic one. Danny Welbeck is in the unenviable position of being third choice for both his club and his country, despite having given indications that he is capable of much more. He is unfortunate enough to be behind Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney in the current pecking order at Old Trafford, and behind Rooney and Daniel Sturridge for England. It seems that the forward is forever having make-or-break seasons, but the current summer seems to be the beginning of a truly vital period for him.
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He might look ruefully at the form of Sturridge at Liverpool, and reflect upon what it would be like to have a manager who both utterly believes in him and who plays him in a central role. He now has a difficult choice to make: He can seek football elsewhere, somewhere such as Everton, where he would probably be a first choice and would be able to work under the brilliant Roberto Martinez. Alternatively, he could try his luck under new Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal. For reasons both practical and sentimental, he should probably do the latter.
If Welbeck departs, he will be leaving his hometown club to advance his career, yet he will also never have the truly iconic status that every elite striker craves. Moreover, he will be leaving a manager who helped Patrick Kluivert develop into one of the best leaders of the line that the modern game has seen. Of course, Van Gaal and Kluivert were acquainted far younger -- Kluivert was in his teens when he began to star for Ajax, while Welbeck is just emerging from his early twenties -- but, crucially, Van Gaal will have seen in Welbeck more than a glimpse of the talent that he is working with.
Welbeck offers fine technique and vision and is capable of combining well with fellow forwards. For example, in his club's 4-2 home win over Stoke City in the 2012-13 season, he, Rooney and Van Persie dismantled the visitors' defence with movement of bewildering fluidity. Granted, his strike rate is not particularly impressive, but this is largely a result of being confined to the wing for several weeks at a time. What he does have -- something which he shares with Kluivert -- is the ability to score important goals, most notably in the UEFA Champions League against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu, with a header of which Cristiano Ronaldo would have been proud.
But, but, but: The question is whether Welbeck is able to go the final stage and become a ruthless finisher, the type who can lead Manchester United's forward line for years to come. This is the prime concern, epitomised by the weak chip that he floated into Manuel Neuer's arms in the first leg of last season's UEFA Champions League quarterfinal. That moment against Bayern Munich, which he himself fashioned after a thrilling breakaway, was one where one of his predecessors -- say, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Ruud van Nistelrooy -- would have been expected to score.
A mark of Welbeck's excellent support play is that he is often deployed to either side of the centre forward in a 4-3-3 formation, or as one of the three attacking midfielders in a 4-2-3-1. Yet the time should soon come where he graduates to the top-most point of the attack, whether that be for England or Manchester United. At the end of last season, the uncomfortable thought was that such a day would not soon arrive in relation to either of these teams. This is why, for perhaps more than any another Manchester United player, Van Gaal's transformative methods cannot arrive soon enough.