On Friday morning, reports began emerging that Van Gaal had informed the 23-year-old forward that he was free to leave Old Trafford, just over a week before the close of the summer transfer window.
Both Tottenham and Arsenal were immediately linked with a move for the England international, with other clubs doubtless monitoring the situation to see if an opportunity might arise (Sunderland, for example, had been linked with a swoop for a player they had on loan four years ago by Simon Jones of the Daily Mail, but for now they appear to be focusing on finally tying up a deal for Fabio Borini from Liverpool).
As Matt Law reported for the Daily Telegraph:
Danny Welbeck has been told he can leave Manchester United during the final week of the transfer window.
With only two years remaining on his contract, United value Welbeck at around £15 million which would comfortably fit into the budgets of north London rivals Spurs and Arsenal.
[Welbeck] can play as a left-sided forward, as he often does for England, or through the middle. He has scored 20 Premier League goals in 90 appearances for United.
It is important to note this is not the first time there have been strong reports around Welbeck’s future, with speculation as recently as April that the forward was considering his future after becoming a fringe member of then-manager David Moyes’ first-team squad.
"As you know, there have been a lot of stories," Moyes said, per Simon Stone of BBC Sport, at the time, seemingly acknowledging Welbeck was unsettled before adding: "Danny Welbeck is really important to me and I really value him."
With Moyes being sacked mere weeks later, however, the stories of Welbeck's future began to fade, with Louis van Gaal’s arrival bringing with it a clean slate for all members of the underachieving playing squad. Yet despite welcoming Van Gaal to the club, Welbeck subsequently made his ongoing concerns known, publicly stating his desire to play more through the middle for his club in the future.
Welbeck told reporters, including Daniel Taylor of The Guardian, at the end of May:
I’d like to play centrally. I’ve been playing on the left for a while and it’s got to the time when I want to stake a place up front.
It does get frustrating. You want to play in a certain position and you’re not getting the opportunity to do that. It’s the same for everyone else when they are being played out of position and they don’t really like it.
Unfortunately, even at this early stage of the season, it would appear Welbeck’s chances of getting his wish will be similarly limited under Van Gaal—perhaps even more so considering the left-sided role that was his frequent consolation is no longer an option in Van Gaal’s preferred 3-5-2 formation.
With Welbeck still recovering from a knee injury sustained on the club's pre-season tour, Javier Hernandez was preferred as Wayne Rooney’s partner in the season opener against Swansea City last weekend. Although once Robin van Persie is fit, both he and Welbeck will surely have to get used to waiting for chances behind United's main duo.
Most pundits had expected Hernandez would be the one to leave this month, with clubs across Europe supposedly interested, but it appears the Mexican—who is undoubtedly a superior finisher to Welbeck but perhaps does not offer the same all-round attributes and positional flexibility—has earned a place in Van Gaal’s plans, in the short term at least.
Of course, financial implications might be at the root of this latest news as much as anything tactical or technical. If Welbeck is still agitating about his first-team opportunities (with Van Persie to return to full fitness, he is unlikely to get more in the short term) and perhaps stalling on any talks over a contract extension, it is understandable that United would decide they have to make the call and cash in now.
After all, the club still has a great amount of transfer business it will want to conclude over the next 10 days; expensive business that will need to be financed in part by some sales.
While there is a lot of deadwood in the squad that undoubtedly needs cutting away, it is difficult to see exactly where Van Gaal could currently raise money to go toward the signature of an Angel Di Maria or Arturo Vidal, or even an extra centre-back that they perhaps need.
With Marouane Fellaini picking up an untimely injury and Nani sent on loan to Sporting Lisbon to finance the Marcos Rojo transfer, two obvious potential income sources were erased this week, heightening the need to raise capital from elsewhere.
With Welbeck likely to command more in the market than Hernandez (for myriad reasons, not least that Premier League clubs will pay a premium for his “homegrown” status), he becomes a logical casualty—especially if he is unsettled.
With 18-year-old James Wilson, who scored twice on his Premier League debut against Hull City at the end of last season, also at an age where his development would be aided by first-team exposure, Van Gaal might feel he has an acceptable replacement in the wings.
However, observers might suggest Wilson’s playing style is more similar to Hernandez’s than his compatriot’s.
Of course, it must not be ruled out that Van Gaal is considering using Adnan Januzaj or even Wilfried Zaha as “strikers” in his 3-5-2 formation, in a similar way he used the likes of Arjen Robben and Memphis Depay during the World Cup with the Netherlands.
All are wingers by trade, but with his preferred formation (at this time) not employing that role, he will need to get creative to ensure Januzaj in particular remains heavily involved.
Of course, Manchester United fans, like Ravel Morrison, might be saddened to see an academy product depart, especially if he ends up joining a rival at the top of the table and enhancing their options.
Then again, they may acknowledge that it is a painful price to pay to ensure the squad is well strengthened in other areas—if the deal goes some way to ensuring Di Maria or Vidal (or both?) arrive by deadline day.
For Welbeck, however, it will be important that he makes the right decision when it comes to his next move. If he really wants to get the chance to establish himself as a viable starting striker for a club side, he needs to go somewhere where he can be guaranteed that opportunity.
Sturridge told reporters this summer:
I've grown up with Welbz and I think he's unbelievably talented, he doesn't get the credit he deserves. We've been in similar situations, both wanting to play centrally but being on the wing.
Mentally, it plays with you sometimes. You're not clear-minded on how to perform.
But when we play for England, we're fluid and try and help each other out as much as possible. He was my strike partner in the Under-21s, he makes my job easier as well.
"Welbz is dat guy" for Sturridge as well, it seems. Lauded by those he plays alongside, it is surely understandable the man himself would be fed up with struggling to similarly convince his club managers of his worth.
A new start may be exactly what he needs.
“I played [centrally] for United over the Christmas period and scored a few then,” as Welbeck told Taylor. “I just want opportunities.”
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