In an Aston Villa season deserving of the label ‘relegation battle’, the majority of the headlines have come from Christian Benteke’s goal tally, with the performances of players such as Andi Weimann, Brad Guzan and Matthew Lowton also getting warranted recognition. But playing a decisive but often-overlooked role in the fortunes of Aston Villa has been their longest-serving player, Gabriel Agbonlahor.
Agbonlahor has polarised opinion amongst fans for much of his Villa career. There are those who see the 26-year-old Villa player as a born-and-bred, true and loyal Villan, a talisman that should be one of the first names on the team sheet. Others though, argue that the only reason he’s been at the club for so long is, unlike the likes of Milner, Young, Downing and Barry, that nobody thought he was good enough to buy; largely due to a questionable scoring record considering his duration at the club.
Indeed, at several points during his Villa career so far, Agbonlahor has been one of the more heavily criticised players at the club. This is probably down to the fact that his form has varied wildly since his first-team debut against Everton on 18 March 2006, a 4-1 defeat in which he scored Villa’s consolation.
Yet, by scoring Villa’s sixth in their 6-1 demolition of Sunderland, Agbonlahor secured the place in Villa’s history that he deserves by becoming Villa’s outright Premier League all-time record goalscorer.
His two goals at Carrow Road last Saturday were vintage Agbonlahor – the first a driving run from his own half before firing into the bottom corner from 25 yards, and the winner coming from a wonderfully timed run (the fact Villa now have a player in Ashley Westwood who can slide passes through a defence rather helps their cause) and a trademark low finish into the same bottom corner.
With Agbonlahor, one feels it is all about confidence. These were two goals that it was almost impossible to imagine Agbonlahor ever scoring at this stage last season. He went eight months in 2012 (from January to September) without scoring in all competitions, with an even longer dry spell in the league – after scoring in the 3-2 home win against Norwich on 5th September 2011, he did not score a league goal until the winner at Sunderland on 3rd November 2012.
Any Villa fan who has been a regular at Villa Park throughout Agbonlahor’s career will have seen both the best and the worst of his football. From the start of 2008-2009 to the end of 2009-2010, he scored 29 competitive goals for Villa; in the next two seasons he scored a total of 11.
When on form he is lethal in the opposition third and a nightmare for any defender. When off form, the goals dry up and his head often drops.
However, despite his youthful age, Gabby is Villa’s longest-serving player and record Premier League goalscorer for a reason. He was Villa’s lone centre-forward in the season under Martin O’Neill during which Villa set a club record of seven consecutive away wins in the league, and genuinely looked like they might qualify for the Champions League until their season began to tail off in February.
Even when on a goal drought, Agbonlahor carries a vital threat for Villa, whether playing centre-forward or, as is the custom in recent seasons (and which goes some way to explaining his declining seasonal goal tallies) as one of the wide men in an effective front three.
Agbonlahor’s pace has always frightened defenders (the pure desperation on Vidic’s face as the Manchester United defender hauled him down to prevent him running through on goal in the opening minutes of the 2010 League Cup final springs to mind), and allows Villa to stretch the game and get in behind teams.
However, following his bulking up of his physique with the aim of becoming more of a traditional target-man striker in Villa’s final season under O’Neill’s leadership, Agbonlahor was left looking a yard off his usual pace in Gerard Houllier and Alex McLeish’s Villa sides, and rather more cumbersome than Villa fans prefer to see him.
But in recent times Gabby has looked fitter than he has for a few seasons, and has become the perfect blend of his customary frightening pace and a more recently acquired power.
The spectacular goal-scoring success of Christian Benteke this season has also meant that, whereas Agbonlahor found himself tightly marked every week as Villa’s danger man under O’Neill, this season he has had more space to exploit as teams prioritise attempting to mark the big Belgian out of the game, often double-teaming him.
And this has proven profitable for Agbonlahor, as he’s scoring goals again. Slipping under the radar somewhat as Benteke and Weimann take the plaudits, the importance of the goals Agbonlahor has scored should not be underestimated. Remarkably, whenever he has scored this season, Villa have not lost.
He had already struck in successive Capital One Cup games – two in the fabulous 4-2 win over Manchester City at the Etihad, and Villa’s second at Swindon in the following round – before ending his league drought.
Since doing so, Agbonlahor has hit eight in the four months of 2013. He scored in the away draws at the Hawthorns and Goodison, and has netted six goals in his last seven games – the winner at Reading, Villa’s first goal in the wins over QPR and Stoke, and the final goal in the rout of Sunderland, before winning the game for Villa with his two strikes at Carrow Road last weekend.
After the latter game, Paul Lambert described Agbonlahor as a “terrific weapon”. If Gabby can return in August in the same frame of mind as he’s finished 2012-2013 in, and if this season’s headline pairing of Benteke and Weimann remain at the club over the summer, Lambert will be confident that bigger and better things await Villa next season. Agbonlahor may experience playing with the best generation of Villa team in his career yet.
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