Arsenal’s away performance in the first leg of their Europa League round of 16 tie against AC Milan was one of their best this season. In the face of intense scrutiny, the Gunners pulled off an impressive 2-0 win at San Siro, controlling the game from start to finish. Their victory was fully warranted, yet Danny Welbeck still found a way to become a punchline.
A clip of the England international bounced around social media after the match, showing him surge towards goal, getting to the edge of the box, before haplessly scuffing a shot well wide of the far post and falling over in the process. There was a certain Bambi on ice quality to the whole move. Even with Arsenal defying their critics, Welbeck was still Welbeck.
However, against AC Milan in Thursday night’s second leg he was an altogether different player. The clips that circulated around social media afterwards were of the 27-year-old making the difference for his side, scoring twice in a 3-1 win to secure the Gunners’ passage into the Europa League quarter finals.
With Welbeck leading the line, Arsenal appeared more fluid in the final third of the pitch. Far to often this season the Gunners have played as a team of individuals rather than a coherent and cohesive unit, but there was no sign of that against AC Milan on Thursday night. Arsène Wenger’s attacking unit looked comfortable in its own skin with the Everton transfer target up front.
Both players have struggled to find their feet at the Emirates this season, but their unavailability was still seen as a major blow to Arsenal’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League through the second tier competition.
Until the two forwards settle into their new surroundings, though, Welbeck might actually be Arsenal’s best option. That isn’t to say that the ex-Manchester United man is a better player than the former two. Aubameyang and Lacazette were both signed to raise the attacking game and they will surely do that over time, but the Arsenal No.23 gets more from those around him.
Only Mesut Özil played more key passes than Welbeck on Thursday night. The England international involves himself in the build-up play of those around him much more effectively than either of Arsenal’s two big money signings.
What’s more, Welbeck is much better at holding on to the ball at the apex of the attack. Not once was he dispossessed on Thursday night. His pass success rate per game is, on average, better than the the former Borussia Dortmund striker and the ex-Lyon hit-man, even if both average more touches of the ball per game than the 27-year-old. It’s about what third choice forward does with possession, rather than how often he receives it.
There is a misconception over the sort of game Welbeck plays as a centre forward. It’s often assumed that his best quality can be found in his ability to get in behind opposition defences. While it’s true that the former Red Devil possesses the pace and directness to do that, his most valuable trait to this Arsenal team is his capacity for facilitating a more collaborative attack.
Welbeck’s influence had an effect on Arsenal’s midfield too, most notably Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman has averaged 51.8 total passes per game this season, yet he tallied 70 against AC Milan at the Emirates Stadium. With the England international leading the line, the Arsenal No.8 had somebody to bounce passes off.
Against the grain of that reputation, though, he found the target with all three of his efforts on goal against AC Milan, scoring with two of them. He might have made the most of contact in the box to win a penalty kick, but his cool conversion from the spot was the depiction of a player embracing what is being asked of him.
Lacazette will shortly return to training, but as things stand there’s a strong argument to be made that Welbeck is a better fit for this Arsenal frontline than the Frenchman. He could be the key to the success or failure of the Gunners’ Europa League campaign.