It was the question on everybody's lips. The last lingering mystery of the transfer window. Over in the Daily Mail, they were really quite excited about it: "In a couple of days' time van Gaal will attempt to explain why he elected to sell Welbeck to Arsenal on deadline day. Like Welbeck's performance for England, it will make compulsive viewing." And then it turned out that the answer to the question was, well, really quite dull. Banal, even:
Welbeck has been here since he was nine. But he doesn't have the record of Falcao, van Persie, or Rooney. Or the standard. So that's why we let him go.
Which doesn't leave much room for misinterpretation. Sold because he wasn't as good as the rest. That's you all told.
Of course, what's actually interesting is what happens next. With Olivier Giroud out for a while, Welbeck has the chance to take that reasoning, bake it into a pastry case along with the entrails of a deer, cloves, and seasoning, and then force Van Gaal to eat his words and humble pie all at the same time. Goals will do the trick. Lots and lots of lovely goals. And after his brace against Switzerland, optimism is high.
Let's assume, for the sake of this piece, that this optimism turns out to be well placed. That Welbeck scores regularly for Arsenal, turns out to be an excellent striker, hits the magical mark (20 a season? 25?) that separates the properly good from the occasionally useful. Would this then mean that Louis van Gaal had, in selling him, made a mistake? Certainly, this line of argument is being warmed up in some parts of the press; to return (with apologies) to the Daily Mail a moment, we note that Welbeck's goals for England felt, in one writer's view "like humiliation" for Van Gaal.
There are many ways to make mistakes when selling players. Selling a player whose utility is not exhausted. Selling a player who makes the rest of the team function, and replacing them with one who does not. Selling a player for too little money. None of those apply to Danny Welbeck, fourth-choice United striker. Even the valuation seems about fair, since there times when he looks absolutely precious and others relatively worthless. From perspectives footballing and financial, then, Welbeck's departure isn't an obvious error.
Yet. But we're assuming (for the purposes of the piece) that he goes on to become an elite striker, a reliable goalscorer. Should that happen, the transfer will of course have been an error. What a fool that Van Gaal is? Sold a 25-goal-a-season striker for barely more than the price of a Shane Long! Oh, doesn't he look silly.
Well, perhaps. One thing that's been overlooked in the assumption that a free-scoring Welbeck means a silly Van Gaal is the transformative effect that simply moving clubs can have on a player. To take a recent example, Daniel Sturridge left Chelsea as one player and arrived at Liverpool quite another. Whether that's down to escaping something in London or finding something in Liverpool isn't clear; probably a bit of both. More responsibility, less competition for places, Luis Suarez to feed off, Brendan Rodgers' lovebomb stylings ... whatever it was, he hasn't really stopped scoring since.
But that doesn't mean that Chelsea selling him was a mistake, because he wasn't doing those things for Chelsea. Perhaps Chelsea could be blamed for not unlocking his talent, but it makes little sense to castigate them for moving him on having failed to do so.
Similarly, if Danny Welbeck does turn out to be great, then United's mistakes will have been made earlier. David Moyes' decision not to move Rooney on at the beginning of last season, perhaps, or Alex Ferguson taking the short-term step of bringing in Wayne Rooney. But then, those decision were presumably made with Welbeck in mind. Ultimately, if he does turn out to be brilliant for Arsenal, then Van Gaal will take the stick but it will have been Moyes and Ferguson who failed to get that brilliant out of him.
Indeed, the only way selling Welbeck might turn to be an actual mistake is if something else happens as well. Perhaps something unpredictable, like Falcao and Van Persie run into one another and their knees explode at exactly the same moment as Wayne Rooney accidentally strangles himself with the captain's armband. Or perhaps something entirely predictable, like Welbeck scoring the goals that keep United out of the Champions League for the second season in a row. Now, that might be the real cock-up. Not selling Welbeck, but selling him to the wrong place.