Louis van Gaal is not afraid of change, that has been clear for all to see during the start of his rein at Old Trafford.
Charged with the task of returning the Red Devils back to the top of the tree, he is not afraid of shaking a few branches during the climb if the criticism of the world’s fourth most expensive defender in world football is anything to go by.
However, his comments on Luke Shaw’s fitness levels were derived from a determination to see his cherished 3-5-2 formation become a success in the powerful, physical climate of the Premier League and beyond. The Dutchman has changed tact in order to fit more of his best attackers in the starting line-up, with Manchester United’s trident of Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie keen to be included on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, with the future of several members of the squad under threat after a disastrous campaign, Danny Welbeck may not be a household name like the previously mentioned trio, or even the most obvious candidate, but the Englishman could thrive as part of the front two.
At the World Cup, which is when Van Gaal’s formation was placed under scrutiny given the likelihood, which proved to be correct, that he would roll out a similar style at Old Trafford in the forthcoming season. In truth, the system that has seen such a huge resurgence with Newcastle United and Hull City amongst those who could now utilise it, was an enforced one.
Only a cruel injury to Kevin Strootman led to the tweak, with Arjen Robben, who has proved so dangerous on the flank through his predictable, but ridiculously difficult to stop trick, of cutting inside and pulling the trigger moving to a central role. The Bayern Munich talisman was fielded alongside Van Persie as part of a pair and his pace was crucial.
The ability to get in behind the defence and also provide an out ball, along with an ability to run at opponents helped the system immensely. Particularly on the counter attack as his assist for Memphis Depay’s late goal against Chile. As a result, if Van Gaal continues to try to fit the Oranje blueprint to the Red Devils, Welbeck is most suited to the role in which Robben thrived during the tournament in Brazil.
Simply put, it is primarily because of his pace. There is a distinct lack of it along United’s front line in the planned formation,with the speed in their ranks lying within the marginalised wingers, while the wing backs will provide the side’s natural width.
Welbeck has arguably produced his best performances against side’s that retain the ball well and play possession football. His electric pace scares even the most assured defenders, although his demeanour, which at times appears clumsy, does not suggest so. The 23-year-old is a real handful to come against with pace, power and height that he is not always given credit for.
He may not be the most clinical finisher, or overly skilful on the ball, but he carries it well and possesses decent decision-making ability once a break has been made. The knack of dragging defenders out of position is invaluable in enabling United’s onrushing midfield to get the space they need and so that wing backs can be fed in the wide areas.
During the club’s pre-season tour, Welbeck has been given his chance up top; against LA Galaxy he did reasonably well and even fired home a 25-yard strike with remarkable precision to open the rout. The fixture against Internazionale, who represented much stronger European opposition, he was alongside Rooney and was too static in the central area of the pitch. He will need to display better movement to prove his worth.
However, if Welbeck is indeed that guy, then emerges yet another conundrum. Van Persie is virtually guaranteed of a place in the side, given his Dutch connection and favourable relationship with the new boss, along with the fact he is the best out and out striker at United’s disposal.
On the opposite side of the coin, Javier Hernandez will be unlikely to be able to force his way into the reckoning and could leave.
But, in a move that would have once been deemed unthinkable, Rooney could find himself out of the side, despite recently signing a contract of epic proportions. His main competition for the number 10 role, which he has dropped back to claim in recent years is Mata. The mercurial Spaniard’s exquisite passing and ability in tight areas means that the toss up could fall in the ex-Chelsea man’s favour. Whoever is fielded there would have to spray balls for Welbeck to run onto, with both equally capable of doing so.
While some sections of the squad will be deemed surplus to requirements once Van Gaal has run his eye of their talent during their pre-season schedule, Welbeck appears to have a significant role to play, especially if the side are forced to play on the counter rather than dominate proceedings themselves.
His return of nine goals may not have set the world alight, but Van Gaal seems to value players that naturally suit his system and reward his faith. Welbeck rarely lets you down and leaves nothing out on the pitch. As a result, he might just get the nod, given that he is as reliable, solid and hard working as they come if not spectacular.
The 3-5-2 formation could lead to unlikely and unsung heroes that struggled during the dark days of David Moyes come to the fore; and Welbeck’s name could be chanted before long.