Can wildcard Welbeck be Wenger’s surprise title hero?
The striker made a dramatic comeback last weekend but his manager will need further contributions from him if the Gunners are to win trophies this seasonAfter a predicted six-day absence turned in to 10 months on the sidelines, it’s no wonder the Arsenal dressing room broke into a chorus of ‘one Danny Welbeck’ after the striker’s heroics against Leicester City.
Welbeck came off the bench for his first appearance since last April to head home the winner with virtually the last touch of the game as the Gunners beat Leicester 2-1 on Sunday.
The emotion of the moment was obvious in the 25-year-old’s celebrations as he firmly put months of setbacks and lonely gym work with Arsenal’s physio James Haycock behind him.
Not only was it huge for Welbeck, but it was a potential turning point in the Premier League title race this season.
Arsenal now sit only two points off the top of the table with 12 matches left to play as they target their first title since the Invincibles in 2004.
Welbeck’s return is timely and the strength of Arsenal’s squad – now over the worst of their annual injury crisis – could make the difference in the run-in.
The former Manchester United man was not even supposed to feature against Leicester but impressed Arsene Wenger so much in training last week that the manager decided to name him on the bench.
Welbeck came on as an 83rd minute substitute and on Saturday will almost certainly make his first start of the season when Arsenal continue their bid to win an historic third FA Cup in a row.
Hull are once again the opponents after Arsenal beat Steve Bruce’s side in extra-time in the 2014 final before knocking them out in the third round last term.
A fit, hungry and in-form Welbeck could make a massive difference in the final three months of the season, with Arsenal still in with a chance of an unlikely treble – at least until they face Barcelona in the last 16 of the Champions League.
The club’s title triumphs under Wenger have usually coincided with a player making a surprise contribution almost out of nowhere. In 1998 it was Cristopher Wreh and Nicolas Anelka; then Freddie Ljungberg in 2002 and the likes of Edu, Gael Clichy and Kolo Toure in 2004.
Welbeck could be the 2016 version and while a latecomer this season, he has already started to play his part.
For a start, he is fresh and hungry, desperate to make up for lost time and to prove his form and fitness to both Wenger and England manager Roy Hodgson ahead of Euro 2016.
His quick feet and intelligence around the penalty area – particularly with his one-touch passing – can open up defences, even if he is hardly prolific in front of goal (eight goals in 37 appearances in all competitions last season).
Arsenal have scored eight goals fewer than at the same stage last term and Welbeck’s return will give them a huge boost, particularly with Olivier Giroud currently struggling for goals having scored in only one of his last nine league appearances.
Alexis Sanchez is also working his way back to sharpness following two months out with a hamstring injury and the Leicester victory showed the value of strength in depth, as both Arsenal goals were scored by substitutes, with Theo Walcott scoring the equaliser.
“Yes, he does [have a big part to play],” said defender Per Mertesacker when asked about Welbeck’s potential impact in the run-in.
“We need players coming back. We had a lot of long-term injuries and that’s what gave us a bit of struggle in January because we played in December and then January with almost the same team.
“Players who gave us great energy stepped in but now we need other players to come back.
“We are happy to have Danny back and a few others are not far.
“We need all our players. In the end, that makes the difference. There’s more coming from other players as well.”
It has been a nightmare time for Welbeck since he failed to recover from what he initially thought was a minor knee problem.
Despite extended periods of rest, the bruising on the bone continued to trouble the former Manchester United man and blocked his recovery until he eventually underwent an operation last September, more than four months after he first complained about the pain.
The long road to recovery is now complete. Now he is on course to help Arsenal win the title.