Rationalising the transfer of Danny Welbeck isn’t a particularly easy pursuit. Not because there exists a lack of reasons to strengthen the notion that it was just the right time for the Longsight-born academy product to move on, but because arguing such a point into the ground completely ignores the reason why so many are upset with his exit in the first place.
In a summer filled with player exits that, for one reason or another, needed to happen, this is the one that sticks out, primarily because he stuck out.
Manchester United is a club and a business that has a huge global appeal and it likes to frequently point out that it can draw support from millions of fans worldwide. It’s one of sport’s biggest and most well-known franchises and attracts quality players worldwide, currently featuring players of 11 different nationalities. A pre-season friendly against Real Madrid drew just shy of 110,000 fans to Michigan Stadium and the vast majority who turned up in team colours were wearing red.
Away from the pitch, due to an aggressive marketing strategy, United have an embarrassingly high number of sponsorship deals. Tomato juice, noodles, tyres, you name it, the club have probably found a way to make money out of it.
Maybe that’s part of the reason that so many cherished Welbeck’s presence at United. He was separate from all of that stuff. He was a local lad playing for the club he loved. Corny as it may sound, he lived the dream. Born and bred less than five miles from Old Trafford, he joined the club’s academy aged eight and made his debut in 2008 as many of its most gifted youth prospects do in the League Cup.
Welbeck worked his way up through the ranks, did his time out on loan at Preston North End and Sunderland when opportunities were hard to come by, and still got to play up front for his boyhood club on 142 occasions. He scored at the Bernabeu, notched six goals in six last Christmas whilst United’s leading lights up front were on the treatment table but most importantly, he made the grade at his boyhood club, one of the world’s biggest when so many have failed to even make a mark.
Possession of an infectious personality on the pitch and that rather endearing way in which he flaps his arms in and out when celebrating a goal doesn’t do him any harm, either.
But he’s gone, and this isn’t some overly complicated plea for a return to more romantic sensibilities. Sure, United’s first team isn’t filled with home-grown talent, but it’s been that way for a long time. Even before the Class of ’92 began to drop out of the picture at United one by one, the club has always featured a healthy quota of players from all around the world, and opportunities for youth prospects were earned, not handed out.
Few are capable of making that step up to become a permanent fixture in the starting XI and the club is more than happy to look elsewhere for talent can do just that if it cannot find it in-house.
In this instance, until not too recently, Welbeck was stuck in the same situation he was in when news broke that he wanted to leave Old Trafford on the day of David Moyes’ last game in charge at the club. He was too far down the pecking order up front for his liking, and needed a change.
The Scot’s subsequent sacking seemed to merely delay his exit with Louis van Gaal as unconvinced as his predecessor that Welbeck was capable of dislodging Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie on a permanent basis.
There’s plenty of disagreement to be had with the Dutchman’s decree. The oft-cited argument that Welbeck was frequently required to be a team player and not feature in his preferred role through the middle stacks up, and given Rooney’s indifferent start to the season alongside the fact that he appears to be playing underwater at times, the need for a faster, mobile alternative up front is clear.
But as reality has already won this particular bout, it’s worth stating that Welbeck has failed to impress three managers that he was fully capable of the role he desired, and his goal tally (29 in 142 appearances), even taking into account times played of position or substitutions, doesn’t help.
It might still seem like a cold decision to sell him, and perhaps a foolish one having seen Welbeck confidently tuck away a brace against Switzerland on Monday night. This might be seen as the toughest call of United’s summer clear-out given Welbeck’s undoubted quality and despite a lack of faith from Moyes, he showed that he was beginning to become the player that Old Trafford wanted him to be last season.
But therein lies the point. Van Gaal has a mandate to get Manchester United back on top of the pile as soon as possible; to do that, he needs proven talent that he can trust to score regularly, and as much as it may sting, it’s not the most unreasonable decision to opt for the proven talents of Radamel Falcao ahead of a young man who is yet to become the finished article, regardless of where he comes from.
It’s not a shedding of Manchester United’s identity to allow Welbeck, or Tom Cleverley or any other academy product to continue their career elsewhere and bring in top-quality talent to replace them. This is how the club has been run for a long time. Put simply, if you’re good enough, then most of the time, you won’t be leaving.
Welbeck is good, great, even and he has clearly improved during his time at the club, but he’s not quite good enough. Not yet, anyway.
In that sense, his £16m transfer is good move, for all parties. Arsene Wenger has a very real need for a centre forward with Olivier Giroud injured, Welbeck is dying for a starting slot through the middle and Manchester United have an upgrade on their books already. There’s every chance that he’ll become a better player at Arsenal, and United fans will be the first to say they told you so, although a rather impressive goal scoring record for the national team means his talent is hardly a well-kept secret.
So yes, all things considered, perhaps this move was for the best. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t hurt a little. United, for all its many, many positive aspects is still a business, and one that is concerned with many things, alongside actual football.
In that sense, away from the sponsorships and the kit deals, perhaps this transfer, and the feelings that it’s provoked, are a timely reminder of what actually matters when it comes to this club.