United David Moyes’ players must stand

Danny Welbeck, centre, did on Sunday what he has rarely done for Manchester United this season – score goals. His club will need more from him, though, if they are to keep fighting for a top-four finish. Darren Staples / Reuters
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One of the great lessons of Manchester United’s recent history is that goalscorers possess a capacity to obscure failings elsewhere on the pitch.

Their midfield did not suddenly mutate from magnificent to mediocre. Yet when Wayne Rooney scored 34 goals in 2009/10 or 37 two years later, or when Robin van Persie struck 30 times last season, they remained contenders.

It is not often that Danny Welbeck is described as a goalscorer. He is the modern-day Emile Heskey, a willing runner and selfless workhorse who seems to forget a forward’s primary duty is to put the ball in the back of the net.

And yet as Welbeck returned to the goal trail after a four-month Premier League drought, he compensated for the injured Van Persie’s absence and emulated United’s more-celebrated strikers. He was the match-winner who contrived, even if only temporarily, to camouflage the midfield malaise.

To borrow two of the sport’s oldest cliches, football is a results business and goals change games. After 14 minutes, this looked a familiar tale of United being overpowered in the middle of the pitch; this seemed a team who, for the first time in 12 years, could suffer three successive league defeats.

After another four minutes, Welbeck had effectively ensured victory. Albeit in his ungainly way, it was a Van Persie-esque intervention.

It also prompted thoughts of David Moyes’s brief honeymoon period. After the opening-day 4-1 win over Swansea City, when Welbeck struck twice, he challenged him to get between 15 and 20 goals a season.

To students of Welbeck’s career, it seemed a hugely optimistic request. This was a player who, despite terrorising Real Madrid with his direct running last season, managed a solitary league goal. Moyes has not surpassed Sir Alex Ferguson in too many respects, but at least he has rendered Welbeck more prolific.

“He got two poacher-type goals,” said the happy manager.

Turning Tom Cleverley, 24, into a midfield general may be a task beyond him, but the England international’s goal had a statistical significance, too: it was the first time a central midfielder scored for United in the league this season.

“Tom needs to score more, but he played really well,” Moyes added.

It was a sign, too, of another of United’s most-derided players contributing. While there is an understandable focus on the transfer market to transform United, the seeds for a revival have to lie in improvement across the board. Moyes has money to spend, which he has confirmed, but blue-chip players are not always available in January.

If a faltering season is to be rescued, if they are to secure the top-four finish that would return them to the Uefa Champions League next season, United require more from players who, in 12 months’ time, might not be at the club, let alone in the team.

Antonio Valencia may belong in that bracket. United’s player of the year in 2011/12, the Ecuadorian has regressed since, but this was vintage Valencia.

Antonio Luna, the unfortunate and appalling Villa left-back, was tormented by the scorched-earth policy of the sprinter from South America. In the process, United rediscovered their ruthlessness, finding their opponents’ weakest link and targeting him mercilessly.

The context made this a special occasion. After losses to Everton and Newcastle United, they required a response as much as a result, and they got both.

They also got Darren Fletcher back after almost a year out a chronic stomach problem.

“Anybody who returns from an illness to play professional football on this kind of stage for a club like Manchester United, it shows a lot about the boy,” Moyes said.

And so Fletcher is a role model. United need more men with his character. It is not just a question of ability.