London (AFP) – Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger praised the mental strength and resilience of Danny Welbeck after the England forward scored twice on his first start since suffering a serious knee injury in May during a 5-0 FA Cup thrashing of Southampton.
Welbeck followed his first-half double at St Mary’s on Saturday with an assist for former Saints star Theo Walcott, who completed his hat-trick in the second half of a comfortable fourth-round win for the Gunners over their Premier League rivals.
Wenger was pleasantly surprised by the display of former Manchester United striker Welbeck, making his first start since a 2-2 draw away to Manchester City in May.
“I didn’t expect him to be at that level,” said veteran French manager Wenger. “I knew that he had worked very hard but you never know how much efficiency there could be to transfer that into a competitive game.
“So it was great to see that he hasn’t lost his runs or his finishing and shows as well that when you are able to channel that frustration at not playing into efficiency, that’s a special guy.”
Wenger added: “You have always two fears, the first is that it takes him too long to get his decision-making (back) and secondly that the player is scared to go into any contact. So when he made the runs and was fighting with the defender, that was a very important moment for me.”
The injury had been Welbeck’s second affecting the same knee since joining Arsenal in 2014 and Wenger was relieved the player had not shown any psychological ill-effects.
– ‘Delighted’ –
“He worked very hard,” Wenger said of the 26-year-old Welbeck. “He went through some moments of very deep disappointment when he had the setback and we had to go in again in the knee, when you are a professional football player that is very difficult. But after the first disappointment he worked even harder.
“He is highly respected inside the club because he has shown so much dedication and never moaned. He has worked very hard and everybody is delighted for him.”
But even Wenger had his doubts over whether Welbeck would come back a second time. “You wonder and I wondered,” he admitted.
The dominant overall display of his team, which featured encouraging performances from Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Ainsley Maitland-Niles in midfield, meant Wenger could relax in the directors’ box during the first game of his four-match touchline ban for pushing fourth official Anthony Taylor during the 2-1 league victory over Burnley on January 22.
“Yes, it was pleasant to watch,” he said. “We had individually strong performances, and collectively as well. It was a good opportunity to see some players who came back like Welbeck and see some young players in midfield who did very well.”
Both managers had made 10 changes to the teams that had played their previous matches but Saints’ young side was no match for Arsenal’s more experienced XI.
But with his side reaching a Wembley final by beating Liverpool in the last four of the League Cup at Anfield in midweek, Southampton manager Claude Puel insisted he had little choice over his team selection.
“It was difficult today,” said Puel, a former protege of compatriot Wenger. “At the start the players were nervous and every situation was difficult,” the Frenchman added.
“The second half was better but without reward.
“Before the game we had nine players not available and to play always the same players is not possible.
“Of course I’m disappointed for the young players, but it’s a good lesson for the future.”