David Moyes is only two competitive games into his tenure as Manchester United manager, and his tactical strategies are likely to evolve as the season progresses, but his side’s early performances have already benefited from the unique skillset of versatile forward Danny Welbeck.
In both the 2-0 victory over Wigan Athletic in the Community Shield and last Saturday’s 4-1 win at Swansea City, Welbeck operated in a role that was difficult to define; hugging the left touchline one minute, darting into the box the next. In this respect he dovetailed with Ryan Giggs, who was United’s most advanced central midfielder in both games.
Welbeck and Giggs were the only players in the United XI who could be said to have taken up unorthodox positions in the two matches. Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley patrolled the centre of the pitch – Cleverley slightly ahead of his England colleague – and while Wilfried Zaha (in the Community Shield) and Antonio Valencia (against Swansea) stayed wide on the right flank, Robin van Persie led the line as a conventional number nine.
Welbeck and Giggs, however, were harder to pin down. Giggs played slightly in advance of Carrick and Cleverley, and was often the player charged with carrying the ball forward into opposition territory, but he occasionally drifted wide to take up a role on the left. Welbeck orbited in support of Van Persie, typically moving to the left when Giggs was not there, but in the game against Swansea he also made a series of bursts into the penalty area from central positions, as his two goals demonstrated. The 22-year-old blends the stamina and work ethic of a central midfielder with the pace and dainty footwork of a winger, and his mobility equips United with both an outlet on the left flank and a foil for Van Persie.
When it was put to Moyes in his post-game press conference after the Community Shield that United had been playing with three midfielders, he furrowed his brow. “I disagree with you if that’s how you thought we played,” he replied. The fluidity of modern playing systems makes assigning formations to teams something of a fool’s errand, but it may be that Moyes considers Giggs to be a member of the attacking midfield band – alongside Zaha/Valencia and Welbeck – rather than a central midfielder.
[Squad numbers: 1. David de Gea; 4. Phil Jones, 5. Rio Ferdinand, 15. Nemanja Vidic, 3. Patrice Evra; 16. Michael Carrick, 23. Tom Cleverley; 25. Antonio Valencia, 11. Ryan Giggs, 19. Danny Welbeck (concealed); 20. Robin van Persie]
It is not difficult to envisage Wayne Rooney or Shinji Kagawa slotting into Giggs’ role, as the nominal playmaker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, although neither player is as suited as the Welshman is to spending time wide on the left. Giggs also fulfils a useful defensive role, but as ESPN’s Richard Jolly has pointed out, Welbeck’s willingness to track back and support left-back Patrice Evra means that the substitution of Giggs for a more attack-minded player like Rooney or Kagawa would not necessarily make United more vulnerable on the left-hand side.
United do not currently possess a left-footed attacking player who operates on the left flank, but they would conceivably be improved by a forward-thinking left-back capable of exploiting the space freed up when Welbeck drifts inside, which may help to explain Moyes’ pursuit of Everton’s Leighton Baines. Evra does not get forward with the same abandon and the trajectory of his barrelling runs typically takes him towards the left-hand apex of the opposition penalty area, rather than the corner flag. Baines, in contrast, is happy to operate high up on the left touchline, and with Van Persie so adept at attacking balls played into the box from wide areas, he would certainly relish a more consistent supply of crosses from that side of the pitch.
For all of Welbeck’s qualities, it is one area in which he is deficient. Despite often being deployed on the left, he does not fully trust his left foot and has averaged just over three assists per season over the last three league campaigns. He nonetheless fulfils an important and multi-faceted role, and his brace at Swansea suggests he may be blossoming into a more complete attacking player.