Danny Welbeck, Brighton's 'teacher on the pitch' – and a man they now have to rely on
Danny Welbeck is more important than ever to Brighton & Hove as they try to maintain a challenge in three competitions.
They were without Joao Pedro for the first time this season in the 2-1 defeat at Tottenham. The 22-year-old Brazilian has spearheaded the attack in the Premier League, Europa League and the FA Cup with 19 goals in 32 outings.
It is unclear how long a hamstring injury will keep him out. In his absence, head coach Roberto De Zerbi will have to lean heavily on the experience of Welbeck.
Not in every game. Injuries have plagued the former Manchester United, Arsenal and England forward throughout his career. At 33 years of age, his body is not up to repetitive 90-minute appearances in a congested fixture list, but he still has a lot to offer on the pitch and in the dressing room.
That was evident when a clever back heel set up Joao Pedro’s goal in the 4-1 home win against Crystal Palace. Welbeck followed that contribution off the bench by leading the line superbly in the first half at Tottenham.
He was involved on most of the occasions Tottenham’s back line were threatened. Inside the opening minute of the match he got the better of Micky van de Ven, cut inside Rodrigo Bentancur and curled a shot towards the far corner of the net which goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario clawed away at full stretch.
Van de Ven recently became the fastest player ever in the Premier League, clocking 37.38 kilometres per hour in a foot race with Lewis Keane-Potter in Tottenham’s 3-2 home win over Brentford last month. But the 22-year-old Dutchman was so troubled by Welbeck that he upended him for Brighton’s 19th-minute penalty. Pascal Gross took that in the absence of Joao Pedro, who has a 10 out of 10 record with spot kicks.
Danny Welbeck is the only experienced member of De Zerbi’s forward options. Barcelona loanee Ansu Fati — who made his second substitute appearance in the second half at Tottenham since missing 13 matches with a hamstring injury — is 21 years old.
Evan Ferguson, Welbeck’s 83rd-minute replacement on Saturday, is 19. Paraguayan Julio Enciso, on course to return in the next couple of weeks from a meniscus tear that has kept him out since August, is 20. Ferguson is going through the type of dry spell that all strikers suffer at some point in their careers — he has not scored since the end of November.
The Irishman spoke two summers ago about the standards Welbeck sets in training. “Everything he does he just tries to make sure that it’s the best that he can deliver,” Ferguson said. “Some of the things you see he does, he’s so sharp. Wow! When you see him do that and you go afterwards and do something and you hear him give a little, ‘Well done’, you feel so good.”
Welbeck’s influence over Brighton’s young group of forwards has not diminished. Assistant head coach Andrea Maldera, who was in charge of the team at Tottenham with De Zerbi in Italy recovering from dental surgery, said: “Danny is one of the best teachers on the pitch.
“He is always positive and he is not only a teacher on the pitch. He can speak with a young player when he is eating with them or when he is on the bus.
“He always gives a lot of advice to everybody. He is a big teacher, he has the soul of a teacher. I don’t know what he wants to do in the future in his life, but he is always very clear-minded. On the pitch, it is the same. He doesn’t speak a lot, but he’ll go close to the players, sometimes work a little with them on the training ground.”
Brighton will have another young forward next season, 19-year-old Ibrahim Osman, after completing a £16million deal with Danish side Nordsjaelland for the Ghana prospect. Who better for Osman to look up to and be inspired by than Welbeck?
That depends on Welbeck agreeing another deal to extend his stay with Brighton into a fifth season. His current two-year contract expires in the summer. Preliminary conversations with his camp began late last year and they are expected to gather pace now that the January transfer window is out of the way.
“It’s not just down to me, it’s down to everybody involved in that,” Welbeck said. “I’m always there for every single player that steps within that dressing room.
“I’m feeling good and I’m feeling strong. It’s unfortunate that Joao Pedro wasn’t with us (at Tottenham), but we’ve got some players coming back from injury. I’ve just got to keep myself ready, be available, try and give my best performance on the pitch, help everybody around.”
Keeping Welbeck around feels like a logical step for all parties as Brighton pursue a third successive top-10 finish in the league. They also want further advancement in both the Europa League and the FA Cup.
Welbeck signed in October 2020 on a free transfer after cancelling his contract with Watford by mutual consent. He is used to high standards at the clubs he has played for. He has a kindred spirit in that respect in the insatiably driven De Zerbi.
“There’s a lot more room for improvement, even though we’ve had some wonderful seasons,” said Welbeck. “We always want to keep on getting better and that is down to the environment we’ve set, the culture, the culture within the team and the squad.
“And the manager we’ve got now doesn’t let anyone rest on their laurels. So, everyone is always on their toes and willing to improve.”
(Top photo: Mark Leech/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)