Gilfoution Heatmaps: Danny Welbeck: Arsenal's Centre Forward?
It appears that it took an injury to Olivier Giroud for Arsene Wenger to realise that he needed to buy another forward. Unfortunately, for Arsenal, it appears there weren't any centre forwards available during this Transfer Window that ticked Wenger's boxes.
The catch is that not many of us know what those boxes are........
Step forward Danny Welbeck.
Welbeck has been a versatile member of Man United's squad the past few seasons, during that time he has played in all the positions across United's front line. As it appears that Welbeck will be Arsenal's main centre forward, at least for the period that Giroud is absent, I wanted to see just how different a player Danny Welbeck is in comparison to Olivier Giroud.
To illustrate the positions taken up on the pitch I like to use a viz that shows where the player received their passes across entire seasons. These gifs show the location of passes received over the last four seasons.
Welbeck's Passes Received
In 2010/11, when on loan at Sunderland, Welbeck was used exclusively on the left.
2011/12 is interesting as this was the season that he primarily played the centre forward role; this was the season before van Persie arrived at Old Trafford. Welbeck had 3.60 shots Per90 during the 11/12 season, unsurprisingly (given his roles in other seasons) this shot volume was the most he achieve across any of the four seasons that I have data for.
However, it is worth noting that Welbeck is a not a high volume shooter. In this 2011/12 season, Wayne Rooney had 4.72 shots Per90, despite being played as a second striker. Even when he played the entire season as the notional centre forward Welbeck ended up playing second fiddle. This reinforces what Danny Welbeck has been in his career to date; he's been the perennial bridesmaid as other strikers have led the line and he hasn't yet shown that he could be the main forward for an elite Premier League side. The guy who has the pressure of being the main goal getter.
The signing of RVP in 2012/13 ensured that Welbeck lost his centre forward role that he played in the previous season. He was the ultimate utility man in this campaign as he played right wing, left wing, and second striker along with the very occasional outing at centre forward. His shots volume dropped a full shot to 2.70 Per90 and he had a horrendous conversion rate with just 1 goal from 39 shots (I had him in for ~4.50 Expected Goals from these shots).
In terms of his role, 2013/14 was basically a repeat of Welbeck's previous term. He was played in a number of positions, but mainly back on the left side and his shot volume was consistent with 2012/13 at 2.84 shots Per90. In terms of shot conversion, he showed that the previous season was nothing more than a blip as he dispatched a more than Expected 9 goals from his 46 shots.
Giroud's Passes Received
The data for 2010/11 and 11/12 in the above gif is from Giroud's time at Montpellier in Ligue 1. In these two seasons he was involved very centrally - virtually all his passes received is towards the middle of the pitch.
In 2012/13 Giroud notched up 4.15 shots Per90; this is almost half a shot Per90 more than Welbeck has managed at any point over the last 4 seasons (even when he was playing at centre forward).
2013/14 is a little bit weird. Despite continuing to play the centre forward role, the location of passes received by Giroud last season is noticeably different from the spots he picked the ball up the previous year. The passes he received were less central, they were closer to the right wing and also were further out from goal. Given this information it is no surprise to see that Giroud's shot volume decreased to 3.24 per90 during the last campaign. Almost 1 shot less Per90 is quite a reduction in output for a main striker and goal getter.
Welbeck is not a high volume shooter, and his continual shifting of positions at Man United gives him an "excuse" for his relatively low shot numbers. However, in the one season that he did consistently play at centre forward he still only managed to chalk up a little over 3.50 shots Per90. If we wanted to make a case for his defense we could point out that he was only 21 at that time, which is a very young age for a striker.
Welbeck is a pacy forward, but I'm not sure he shoots often enough to be considered a great striker. Perhaps being the marquee forward in his new team, which would be the first time in his career that this was the case, might see him making the step up to being an exceptional forward. Personally, I'm not sure this will be the case.
But let's not forget that Welbeck wasn't bought for £50m or £60m, his transfer fee was just £16m. I'd suggest that in 2014 £16m doesn't get a Top 4 Premier League team a real top class striker. Therefore should we be surprised that I'm saying I think he'll come up short?
No, probably not. Any criticism in this regard should be laid at the door of Arsene Wenger as it is he who has decided that Welbeck is the solution to Arsenal's lack of a centre forward.
As Ben Pugsely quipped in the most recent Statsbomb podcast:
If Danny Welbeck is the answer, then what is the question?
However, given Giroud's injury and Welbeck's sub £20m transfer fee I can see why Wenger decided it was a gamble worth taking. There's not a lot of downside to the purchase of Welbeck; he can play a number of positions, is disicplined enough to carry out defensive duties and has pace to burn. I'm just not sure Welbeck is the answer to the question that Arsenal fans were asking, but if the alternative was the continued perseverance of Sanogo at centre forward then it's clear Wenger had to do something.