Earlier this week, I had a chat with one of my friends about Gabriel Agbonlahor. Now this isn’t a regular occurrence. For the most part, Gabby hasn’t been very newsworthy for several years. His production for Aston Villa as a forward has declined precipitously since Martin O’Neill left Villa Park. But we talked about Gabby because somehow he’s been a part of Paul Lambert’s setup since he returned from injury.
The real debate among Villa fans, and indeed, the punditry-at-large, this season has surrounded the choice upfront between Darren Bent and Christian Benteke. Paul Lambert has been making bold choices all season, preferring players from lower leagues and from overseas to play for him in the Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes). Benteke was Lambert’s big signing, and the Belgian striker has shown glimpses of being very special indeed. But, at the same time, Darren Bent is Aston Villa’s top scorer, both this year and last. It’s been very odd to see him sitting on the bench when he has top class finishing ability. When he’s come off the bench, he’s provided an added punch. Losing to West Brom, Bent came on and scored Villa’s lone goal.
The common wisdom among the pundits is that Bent requires service and that Benteke can create his own shot. Strangely, neither Paul Lambert or the matchday commentators have suggested playing them together. I tried it out last night on FIFA13 against some friends, and sure enough, they worked well together – in that completely unrealistic videogame kind of way. I had Darren Bent cross the ball into the box, where Benteke provided the finish. Deadly combo.
I know Bent is unlikely to be crossing the ball anytime soon, but that is where nominally skilled midfielders like Stephen Ireland or Charles N’Zogbia come in (or indeed, little Marc Albrighton, who looked so out of place among Lambert’s trio of ball-winners in the midfield against Norwich City – Brett Holman, Fabian Delph and Karim El Ahmadi). Put your finishers up front, have them divide the attentions of the opposition centre-halves and get them service. It certainly would make more sense than what I’ve seen in recent weeks.
This is where we return to Gabby. Poor Gabby. Playing FIFA13, it is pretty apparent that he has one major attribute – he fast. And… that’s it. I’ve played older versions of FIFA and Agbonlahor was a premier talent. He was young, fast and had enough attributes that you’d include him in the lineup, regardless of whomever else was available for Villa. Heck, you’d even consider him for the England squad back then. But that was when his overall skill level was in the 80s. I believe FIFA13 now lists him as 74 (though it fluctuates with their Match Day form function). I don’t believe that the good folks at Electronic Arts are off on this assessment. Gabby is still fast, but he really doesn’t create much in the way of assists and he rarely scores in the Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes) these days. It’s a good thing that cup ties like the FA Cup or the League Cup (known as the Capital One Cup for Corporate Sponsorship purposes) exist.
So why is he in the starting lineup beside Benteke while the team’s leading scorer, Darren Bent sits in the dugout?
Because, as I discussed with my friend earlier this week, Gabriel Agbonlahor is the new Heskey.
Emile Heskey, for the uninitiated, is somewhat of a punchline in football (soccer) circles. He’s a stocky, muscular forward, who miraculously played for England 62 times despite rarely scoring or providing assists. He also did the same for Aston Villa (and others) before departing this past season. He now plies his trade for the Newcastle Jets in the Australian soccer league.
Because the Australian league is roughly one step below the MLS, Emile Heskey is revered as a messiah, akin to the buzz that greeted David Beckham upon arriving at the LA Galaxy. His shirt sold out in seconds, Newcastle immediately sold 2,000 additional season tickets, etc. His statline for the Jets reads four games played, four goals scored. He even slotted two this week when FOX Australia provided a dedicated “Heskey Cam”, which in their words gave fans everything: “one camera, one hero; every pass, every run, everything Heskey does on the pitch, you’ll see it first with the Heskey Cam, the dedicated broadcast providing a rare insight into what makes Heskey so good.”
Maybe the Brisbane Roar or the Central Coast Mariners should make a play for Gabriel Agbonlahor, because I think he could be just as good as Heskey. In fact, he’s well on his way, having played in his 27th straight Premier League (known as the Barclays Premier League for Corporate Sponsorship purposes) match without a goal. Again, this is the guy who is really in the lineup ahead of team goal-scoring leader Darren Bent, not Christian Benteke (who is second in goals for the Villans).
It hurts me to say it, because I love Gabby. He’s a nice guy. Has great things to say about his teammates. I think he is a great servant to the club, one of the rare local lads made good. He came up through the academy and had some stellar seasons in the past. But it’s been awhile. And his build is becoming more Heskey-esque with time. Apparently for the past couple seasons (while his goal scoring has dropped), Gabby has been hitting the weights.
It was such a concern that former manager Gerard Houllier suggested maybe he should give it a rest. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a manager telling a player to STOP working out. That comes across pretty odd, but if they believed that he was losing some of his pace (again, his one major attribute), perhaps there could be some truth to it. Otherwise, Gabby is in danger of being that guy on the field that nobody can quite figure out what he brings, but is inexplicably always in the lineup.
All I really want is for Gabby to score and silence his critics, especially me. I want to be proven wrong.