Danny Welbeck has come a long way since making his competitive Manchester United debut in the League Cup match against Middlesbrough on September 23, 2008.
In fact, Welbeck has made major progress since slipping through the hands of Manchester City at a young age. The maturing forward—who suffered from Osgood-Schlatter disease in his teens, causing pain in his knees—marked his Premier League debut with a memorable goal against Stoke City over four years ago (via The Guardian).
At this early stage in his career, the Englishman was considered as an out-and-out striker for the Old Trafford club. Although he managed to notch up a handful of goals across the year following his debut, it was clear the youngster had plenty of maturing to do; both physically and as a player.
Loans spells at Preston North End and Sunderland stood the developing player in good stead. His confidence and key attributes advanced, highlighted in powerful performances against Chelsea and Everton for the Black Cats. Welbeck—who finally looked to have grown into his own skin—returned to Manchester United with increased value.
Despite netting nine goals in 30 Premier League appearances during the 2011-12 season, Welbeck's function has slowly changed over time. While his increased muscle and boundless energy sees him occasionally take up a striker's role, Sir Alex Ferguson now prefers to deploy the 22-year-old in a position behind the front line. This could be in a centre forward's role behind the striker, on the wing or in attacking midfield.
Welbeck's displays during the 2012-13 season have deemed this minimal alteration a success. Although originally outlined as a striker, his return of two goals in 17 starts and 16 substitute appearances isn't enough for Manchester United's silverware prospects. Welbeck has laid on four assists in this time, but—like fellow youngster Phil Jones—his versatility has quickly become recognised as an extremely useful weapon for the Red Devils.
It's no coincidence that Welbeck has started many of United's most important games throughout the '12-'13 campaign. With Wayne Rooney injured against Liverpool, Welbeck was preferred to Antonio Valencia and Anderson for a combative role behind Robin van Persie. With Rooney back on the substitute's bench, he featured wide right in the next game against Tottenham at the end of January.
Fast-forward to Feb. 13, Welbeck entered the starting lineup in Manchester United's mouthwatering Champions League trip to the Bernabeu. The superstars of Real Madrid awaited, but with 20 minutes on the clock, Welbeck opened the scoring by putting an excellent header beyond Diego Lopez (via The Guardian).
More impressively, his defensive work halted the progress of Madrid's midfield. Welbeck made four tackles in Spain, a total that only plays second fiddle to Rafael's six. He shadowed Xabi Alonso during both legs, cutting the influential passer's supply and halting the counterattack of Jose Mourinho's side. Suddenly, Welbeck's presence in and around the midfield offered a defensive doggedness that natural wingers Valencia and Nani cannot.
With Robin van Persie. Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez notching up vast amounts of goals between them, this switch is vital to Welbeck's United future. He doesn't possess the natural goalscoring ability of these players and is unlikely to ever dominate the scoring charts with a consistent run of goals.
Welbeck is not a scorer of many goals, but he does have a knack of grabbing important goals. Roy Hodgson can testify to this. Welbeck's five strikes for England during 2012—topped off with a stunning backheeled winner against Sweden at Euro 2012—outlined him as an individual who can do things a little differently. Although Hodgson has pushed Welbeck as a more traditional forward for the national team, his future is likely to be defined by determined tackles rather than endless scoring runs.
Manchester United's reported interest in Radamel Falcao and Robert Lewandowski doesn't need to worry Welbeck (via The Daily Mirror). His evolution across the past twelve months—from sloppy striker to battling forward—means he is very much part of Ferguson's future plans. In fact, his quality from the wing may have finally pushed Nani off the United bench and out of the Old Trafford door (via The Daily Mirror).
Most excitedly for the Premier League champions, Welbeck has unearthed a niche role at his hometown club. His willingness to cover ground at full pace for 90 minutes has not only received appreciation from the United fans, it typified Welbeck's place on the PFA Young Player of the Year shortlist for a second time (via ITV).
Quite often it takes young players a few years to pinpoint their most effective traits. As mentioned, we've seen this with Jones—and on a more phenomenal scale—Gareth Bale's progress from erratic left-back to goalscoring machine. While Welbeck's career is destined to take a far less explosive route than the Welshman, he is already shaping up to be an integral member of United's 2013-14 title defence.
With his transition from striker to versatile forward complete, it will be hugely exciting to witness Welbeck's progress across the coming year. If he continues progressing at the current rate, he will one day be amongst the Premier League's best.
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All statistics in this article are courtesy of Whoscored.