Danny Welbeck Isn’t the Next Thierry Henry, but he Could be the Next Ray Parlour

The return of Danny Welbeck is nigh(ish). The injury Gods permitting, he will be available for the first team at some point in January. His move from boyhood club Manchester United to rivals Arsenal is yet to take off, but there is very much reason to be optimistic about what he can achieve in North London.

His first season at Arsenal was perhaps a forgettable one. Before his season was cut short by two injuries in March and April he got a good run in the team. In all competitions he made 34 appearances, which came both up front and on the wing. He produced a few memorable moments, most notably his hat-trick in the Champions League against Galatasaray and his famous winner in the FA Cup quarter-final at Old Trafford, but those instances of promise merely served to leave Arsenal fans wanting more.

The way he took the three goals in the game against Galatasaray meant that Arsenal fans and journalists alike immediately started comparing Welbeck to the Gunners’ greatest ever striker, Thierry Henry. Whenever a young striker shows promise, it’s inevitable that comparisons are made to the Frenchman. This probably does nothing other than add unnecessary pressure and it is safe to say that it is unlikely that the Premier League will ever see a striker quite like Henry, so it is not worth trying to force the issue.

Those who were expecting Welbeck to turn into Henry were disappointed. He scored just eight goals in the 34 games he played, and by March Arsène Wenger was having to defend his striker, promising that his career at Arsenal would be a much more fruitful one than what he had at Manchester United. 

It is worth noting that goals are not the be-all and end-all of whether or not a player is performing. Scoring is important for any striker, of course, but one can go a run of games without hitting the net and still play well in that time. It is more important that a player in any position contributes positively to his side’s overall play and process — and helps them win games — than top the statistics rankings. Welbeck is a player who proves this.

He is a competent dribbler and, though he has not showcased it much in his career, has a powerful shot, but the two attributes that Welbeck has in abundance he shows to the world on a weekly basis: pace and work rate. The latter can be a quality which is severely overrated by the English — just ask Mesut Özil — but any good team needs players who can graft their way to victory when the going gets tough.

Chelsea’s Willian is a fine example. He has shown this season in particular that he is an excellent footballer, but when the Blues were at the top of their game he helped win them games by “doing the dirty work”, as it were. He got back and helped his team defend, which took the pressure off Eden Hazard, and was able to get straight to the other end of the pitch when Chelsea won back the ball.

Perhaps Arsenal’s most successful ever “worker” was none other than Ray Parlour. The “Romford Pelé”, as he was fondly known, loved nothing more than to put in the hard yards during his playing career and was a critical part in Arsenal’s double-winning midfield of 1997-98.

Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, possibly the greatest midfield partnership in English history, combined to run games both in attack and defence through the centre, whilst winger Marc Overmars, more of a flair player, concentrated on helping the team score goals. Had the other winger been another footballing “artisan”, the Arsenal midfield would have lacked balance. That’s where Parlour came in. He was a perfectly competent attacking option, but he worked his socks off so that Overmars could concentrate on winning games by scoring goals and creating chances.

Though Welbeck was at least unsatisfactory when he played up front last season, on the wing he formed a crucial part of the Gunners side as they rebuilt their season and finished a respectable third in the Premier League, winning a second successive FA Cup in the process. He covered nearly 10,000km every 90 mins, more than Alexis Sánchez, who is constantly praised for how hard he works, and contributed to the team’s success at both ends of the pitch.

Wenger may put his trust in the Englishman and give him another chance up front when he comes back. Should this not work out, though it is likely that Welbeck will always be a sound backup option in that position, there will be no need to despair, as employed as a winger Arsenal may have the next Ray Parlour on their hands.

He has already shown signs of being a good “defensive winger”. When Manchester United played Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, he not only scored, but worked hard at the back and gave the United back four enough help to hold on for a famous 1-1 draw.

Welbeck has all the attributes to be transformed into a very good winger indeed. As well as having great pace, sound dribbling and a good work ethic, which would be enough to make him a trusty servant, his excellent shot could be adapted so that he becomes a good crosser of the ball, which would make him able to play in the “Parlour role” perfectly. He may not want to become a winger, in which case he may struggle to make it at a top side, but there would be no disgrace in achieving what Ray Parlour did — he is very much remembered favourably by those who watched him play.

Danny Welbeck is not the new Thierry Henry; nobody is. In fact, it is unfair to expect anyone to be on that level, with a few exceptions. He has shown signs of being a very good striker, and it still may work out for him in his favoured position. When he comes back into the side he will have a chance to prove himself as, by January, the in-form Olivier Giroud will need a rest. It will be up to him to contribute to Arsenal’s overall play and score enough goals to merit a central role in that time.

A player with Welbeck’s attitude will always be able to find a way to make things work in English football. If things don’t work out up front, now may be the time to change the 25-year-old’s position so that he may still thrive at the top level.