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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Arsenal's plan to play Welbeck against Chelsea shows Wenger's pragmatic side

In a game short on stardust, Englishman's solidity came in handy as Arsenal left Stamford Bridge with a draw.

Arsenal's Danny Welbeck stood in, stepped up and offered proof that big-game players are not always a club’s big players. Mike Hewitt / Getty Images
Arsenal's Danny Welbeck stood in, stepped up and offered proof that big-game players are not always a club’s big players. Mike Hewitt / Getty Images

It was a footballing life in microcosm. Danny Welbeck played well, ran around with great enthusiasm, missed a chance, did not score and got injured. Arsene Wenger declared it a ‘good’ groin problem, which is Wengerese for severe.

A stop-start career will be interrupted again. That is a shame, and not merely for Welbeck. Arsenal had assembled a star-studded forward line of Alexandre Lacazette, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. Welbeck, their seeming deputy, is alone among the attackers in starting this season’s two clashes with Chelsea and one with Liverpool.

Wenger on Lacazette

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He remains a frustrating footballer, 80 per cent of a top player, lacking only consistent fitness and a more regular finishing touch, but he personified Arsenal in Sunday’s stalemate at Stamford Bridge. A goalless game was comparatively short of stardust, with Ozil injured and Sanchez and Eden Hazard beginning on the bench.

Welbeck stood in, stepped up and offered proof that big-game players are not always a club’s big players.

Indeed, they can be their opposites. Watching Welbeck offered a reminder of why, a few years ago, the Premier League summit clashes always featured men such as Park Ji-sung and Dirk Kuyt, supposed attackers who showcased few flicks and tricks but who brought positional understanding, a capacity to mark and track and a sweat-soaked eagerness to run a marathon in their side’s cause.

It requires an absence of ego, a selfless streak, a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the team. It is why, four years ago, Alex Ferguson picked Welbeck ahead of Wayne Rooney against Real Madrid. The athlete was more dependable.

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For all his attacking instincts, Ferguson could be unashamedly pragmatic in his choices on such stages. Wenger is the idealist who has been left looking more naive by Arsenal’s regular defeats away against their peers, culminating in August’s 4-0 thrashing at Anfield.

Arsenal showed more solidity at Chelsea, aided by restored Shkodran Mustafi and a more disciplined Aaron Ramsey. They also displayed more humility. There was a recognition that the first step to winning is not losing, rather than packing a side with potential match-winners.

Perhaps it was borrowed from Ferguson, or Jose Mourinho, or Rafa Benitez, Wenger’s more hard-headed rivals a decade ago. Perhaps it came from Antonio Conte, his counterpart at the weekend. Requiring a result away at Tottenham Hotspur after Chelsea began the season with successive defeats, the Italian picked three defensive midfielders. Needing a response to the loss at Liverpool, Wenger chose a defensive forward, in Welbeck.

His importance was illustrated when Sanchez came on. The Chilean replaced Lacazette in a straight swap.

Welbeck retained his inside-left role. Wenger did not want to disrupt his defensive structure. It pointed to a potentially intriguing future where the Frenchman has to choose between his record buy and his premier talent away at the title contenders.

Perhaps Welbeck’s latest injury will spare him such awkward choices. One way or another, however, one beckons Arsenal visit the Etihad Stadium in November. It was the scene of Arsenal’s last away win against the division’s top six, in a January 2015 encounter defined by another unflashy workhorse, in Francis Coquelin. Tellingly, Ozil was absent that day, just as he was for the moral victory at Stamford Bridge.

The German can make a convenient scapegoat and, while his contribution is invariably questioned, statistics tend to show he is among the division’s most creative players. Yet he can be a passenger out of possession, which comes at a particular cost in defining away matches.

Welbeck can seem his antithesis, a player who does less on the ball but more without it, one who is more physical and less technical. Ozil forms part of Arsenal’s Groundhog Day plotlines. The narrative may only change if he is dropped.

Sunday provided a case for omitting him in such sizeable away fixtures. If it is unfair to ask him to play like Welbeck and vice-versa, Arsenal’s discipline, defiance and determination at Chelsea showed that big games can be more about application than ability.

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