As Arsenal touched down in Lisbon ahead of Thursday’s night’s clash with Sporting, the Gunners posted a video on social media of their last training session before leaving north London. A six minute clip showcased a squad in high spirits after 10 successive wins; confident in their ability to get the job done no matter what the data might suggest.
One man who took centre stage during the session was Danny Welbeck, finishing with unerring accuracy past young goalkeeper Dejan Iliev.
Fast-forward 24 hours, and Welbeck was wheeling away towards the corner of the Estádio Jose Alvalade having shown that same precision to net the only goal of the Gunners’ clash with the Portuguese giants after latching onto Lucas Torreira’s through-ball via an error from former Liverpool centre-back Sebastian Coates.
The England international’s 78th minute strike secured an 11th straight victory for Unai Emery’s side, and their third in this season’s Europa League. Many felt Welbeck’s main contributions over the current campaign would come in this competition, and thus far they have been proven correct. But does his form suggest he could be key domestically as well as on the continent?
In his last five starts for Emery’s side, Welbeck has been directly involved in five goals having found the net on four occasions as well as laying on a solitary assist. Not bad for a player who is essentially a third-choice forward.
Welbeck would been forgiven for pursuing opportunities away from the Emirates Stadium. It is unlikely he will move ahead of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – who missed Arsenal’s two best chances before Welbeck’s goal in Lisbon – in the pecking order. There are other clubs in the Premier League’s top six – namely those across the capital – where Welbeck would, at the very least, be second in line.
Instead he has knuckled down after a horror run of injuries and made himself a key member of an Arsenal squad that continues to defy sluggish first-half performances and pick up wins.
Again here they struggled during the opening 45 minutes, with a frontline of Welbeck, Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan failing to trouble the Sporting backline, though the three defensive midfielders deployed by Jose Peseiro might have had something to do with that.
At the other end both Rob Holding and Sokratis Papastathopoulos survived scares, with the latter perhaps a little fortunate that a less lenient team of officials were not in charge after pulling back Fredy Montero as he bore down on goal.
That said, Bernd Leno was rarely troubled. In fact the Gunners did not concede a shot on target – a first in Europe since their trip to Monaco in March 2015 – as they recorded their first ever win on Portuguese shores in seven attempts.
With Lacazette and Alex Iwobi only making brief cameos off the bench and Mesut Ozil not even required, it is clear that Emery has a forward line the whole of Europe would fear. Having overseen the club’s longest winning run for a decade, the next challenge is to find the complete performance to go with their raw results.
Whether he can or not remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, though – if Welbeck continues his own form they have every chance of challenging for more than just the Europa League this time around.