Manchester United love a young player. It’s one of the things that differentiates us from other leading clubs. Certain teams predominantly yearn success and display modest concern for the youth set-up, but United’s attention is more acutely focused on the players coming through the ranks, the promising teenagers who can go on to become the foundation of the first team.
It’s a tradition synonymous with the club for several decades, championed by Matt Busby, and has always been a belief upheld by Sir Alex. In fact, upon his arrival, one of the first things he did, aside from dispensing with the drinking culture that had beset the club, was to demand the youth set-up was allotted greater attention and resources. Soon youngsters from around the country – and later, from around the world – were supplementing the local players, creating an ever-widening pool of talent.
Initially, the rewards were minimal and sporadic. Russell Beardsmore, Tony Gill (until a broken leg curtailed his career), and Lee Martin were the limited highlights of an undistinguished production line. In September 1988, Lee Sharpe (acquired from Torquay for a nominal fee) broke into the first eleven, blossoming under United’s stewardship and becoming the most exciting young talent the club had possessed for some time. Of course, he was to be surpassed by a very special group of young players. There’s been more than enough written about that particular time for me to elaborate here. Besides, as we know, you don’t win anything with kids….
Unfortunately, the stars of the future failed to keep on coming. Since the introduction of Giggs, Scholes, etc between 1991 and ’94, the production line has gradually become less notable. Even though we were casting our net wider than ever before in the search for new stars, Wes Brown, John O’Shea, and Darren Fletcher were the only three academy players in the next decade and a half who made a lasting impressing on the first team. A few players hinted at potential – Kieran Richardson and Danny Simpson for instance – but ultimately fell short of the required standard. Considering the size of the club, it was a disappointing and meagre return.
It is beginning to change now. Jonny Evans has continued to progress and has become a fine, commanding centre half. Rafeal, bought from Fluminense for virtually nothing in a buy one get one free deal, has gradually been developed into an excellent right-back. Both Tom Cleverley and Nick Powell promise great things.
There is one other player who has made the leap. Danny Welbeck. A talented player in the Under-18 and reserve sides, scoring goals and displaying all manner of trickery and technique, he made his competitive first-team debut on 23rd September 2008. Initially used sparingly by Sir Alex, he eventually was farmed out on loan to Preston North End and then Sunderland, where he struck up an incisive partnership with Asamoah Gyan, most memorably when they combined brilliantly to defeat a then-dominant Cheslea by three goals without reply.
Returning to United in the summer of 2011, he was able to force his way into the side at the beginning of last season, taking advantage of Sir Alex’s growing distrust of Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez suffering second-season blues. He swiftly became an effective partner for Rooney, scoring seven goals himself before Christmas, including netting against Arsenal amongst others.
He had already made a few appearances for England and further caps followed later in the season. He acquitted himself impressively, appearing to be one of those players who find the step up to international level a logical progression rather than a stumbling block too far, and he performed with confidence and composure. In fact, for someone who occasionally still appears raw and a work-in-progress, he has scored his goals for England with aplomb, displaying the control and class of a senior striker.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, his form for United tailed off a little in the second half of last season, scoring less frequently, unaided by a continual rotation policy of his front-line by Sir Alex. This season, he has fared no better, and in twenty appearances he has only once seen his name on the score-sheet. As always, he has played with spirit and enthusiasm but he has been unable to replicate last season’s impact.
It’s natural for young players to suffer fluctuations in form and belief, and it’s always worth taking that into account. Even so, he finds himself in a strange position now. It is clear his game needs to develop. He possesses a raft of encouraging attributes: pace, upper-body strength, power in the air, and a terrific work-rate. He is excellent at harrying defenders and winning the ball back high up the pitch.
However, his first touch is occasionally clumsy, and presented with opportunities for a shot on goal or an incisive pass, he sometimes lacks the required poise. That’s not to say it isn’t in his armoury – consider his sublime finish for England against Belgium, or that delightful step inside an Everton defender and placement inside the top corner in that fateful 4-4 draw. It’s his inconsistency in key moments that is currently his greatest weakness. It could be attributed to confidence or inexperience but when he is afforded a great chance in front of goal, you don’t know whether to leap out of your seat with excitement or close your eyes and pray.
He has the potential to become a top player. He has the qualities. They just need harnessing, developing and polishing. The only way that will occur is through Premiership games. Not on the wing, where in a round hole he looks like the squarest of square pegs, but up front, holding the ball up, bringing others into play, and generally being a focal point for the team. He faces a problem though – whilst we reacted with shock and awe at Van Persie’s arrival this summer, it was bad news for Welbeck. Wayne Rooney has always been a certain starter. Now RVP will play most games and when you factor in Kagawa and a resurgent Hernandez, it is clear Welbeck’s opportunities will be limited and infrequent. For a young striker who still needs to develop, and who generally fails to shine as a substitute, that is hardly a promising picture.
He’s fallen into a paradox – he needs games to become a top player, but he needs to become a top player to force his way into the side. Sir Alex and Welbeck need to give serious thought how to develop his game that necessary 10 or 20%, as it’s unlikely to occur through the occasional appearance or a twenty minute cameo from the bench. Depending on what happens in the January transfer window, perhaps even a loan to another Premiership club for half a season or so should not be ruled out. We already have three premium forwards. Danny Welbeck now needs to work out how to progress towards that level too.