Is Danny Welbeck running out of opportunities to impress at Arsenal? Nick Wright was at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday night to see him struggle in their Europa League meeting with Ostersunds.
“I believe he has gone through a torrid time but he has come out well,” said Arsene Wenger. “I see signs in training now that are positive.”
Danny Welbeck may have impressed his manager on the training ground but on a cold night at the Emirates Stadium, those positive signs did not translate to Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat to Ostersunds. No player in Wenger’s rotated side emerged with any credit, admittedly, but it felt particularly disappointing for Welbeck.
With Olivier Giroud sold to Chelsea, Alexandre Lacazette sidelined by a knee injury and new signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ineligible, Arsenal’s Europa League meetings with Ostersunds seemed an ideal opportunity for Welbeck to impress. Two subdued showings and no goals later, however, and he appears little closer to winning back his place in the team.
It continues a frustrating period for a player whose Arsenal career risks being defined by injuries. It is easy to forget that Welbeck began the season in good shape, starting their first five games and scoring in wins over Leicester and Bournemouth, but it’s been a familiar story of setback after setback since then. On this evidence, he is still some way from regaining his sharpness.
Just as in the first leg, Welbeck started in his favoured position up front, aiming to stretch Ostersunds and get in behind their defence. An early through ball from Ainsley Maitland-Niles almost set him away, but Welbeck was a bystander for most of the first half.
By the end of it, he had touched the ball fewer times than any other player with the exception of David Ospina, and his only effort on goal, a flicked header from Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s looping free-kick, had sailed straight into the arms of the goalkeeper.
Arsenal showed signs of life after the break, with Sead Kolasinac’s goal calming the nerves around the sparsely-populated stadium, but Welbeck’s frustration only grew. He looked sluggish when he was beaten to a Jack Wilshere flick by Tom Pettersson shortly after the goal, then on a rare occasion that he did manage to get in behind, he wastefully scooped the ball straight to the goalkeeper.
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Welbeck’s desperation to make an impression was clear as he dropped deeper to try and influence the game, but he continued to struggle in front of goal. In the 65th minute, he combined nicely with Alex Iwobi on the right-hand side of the Ostersunds box, but when the cross found him unmarked six yards out, he planted his header straight at Aly Keita again.
Welbeck held his head in his hands knowing he should have scored, and it was grimly fitting that his final action of the night was to spurn another opportunity. This time he created space for the shot by cutting onto his left foot, only to see his low effort repelled by Keita’s legs. “We should have scored a few goals,” conceded Wenger afterwards.
Welbeck’s lack of cutting edge is understandable after another season which has been interrupted by injuries, but the missed chances did little to support his claim for a more regular starting role up front. The former Manchester United forward is yet to reach double figures for goals in a single season at Arsenal and he is only halfway there this time around.
Have the injuries taken their toll? It would hardly be a surprise if so. Major knee problems wrecked his previous two seasons but there have been niggling toe, hip and groin issues as well. Since his arrival at Arsenal in 2014, Welbeck has lost nearly 600 days to injury. He enters the final year of his contract next season and his future is far from guaranteed.
Wenger’s comments before the game eluded to confidence issues, too. “One of the advantages of being young is that you feel undestroyable,” he said. “It gives you an arrogance. But as soon as your arrogance is hit, you are lost. Sometimes players are very confident, very arrogant but as soon as they lose that belief in their body, suddenly they are lost and they don’t know any more what is going on.”
Welbeck was never the kind of player to exude arrogance, but it is difficult to escape the feeling that he has lost something along the way. Wenger insisted the “torrid time” is behind him, but it seems Welbeck still has work to do to come through it.