He’s fast as f***
Towards the end of an acrimonious 2005-06 season maligned Aston Villa manager David O’Leary fidgeted in his dug-out at Goodison Park and looked across at his bench. The under-fire boss was inevitably cursing Aston Villa’s ‘fickle’ away fans who noisily chorused him with chants as Villa went 3 – 0 nil down to Everton inside 45 minutes.
O’Leary’s regular lamentations that his squad were “only young lads” (and a bunch of ‘honest lads’) had left many fans unconvinced, but as if to prove the point the manager summoned a 19-year-old academy player from the bench to make his debut. On 63 minutes the speedy youngster latched onto Lee Hendrie’s lay off in the box and slotted the ball past Richard Wright as Villa slumped to a disappointing 4 – 1 defeat. Not the ideal conditions for a teenager to make his debut some of the more cautious fans would say, but Gabby Agbonlahor has since remained an ever-present member of Aston Villa’s first team under Martin O’Neill, Gerard Houllier, Alex McLeish, and Paul Lambert (update: and now Tim Sherwood has started the 2015/16 season with him).
Eight seasons is a long time to remain at one club, especially when the team’s reactive style of play has remained largely the same.
Gerard Houllier aside, Villa’s conveyor belt of managers have usually favoured low-possession counter-attacking teams and have sought to exploit Agbonlahor’s pace as the main focus of attacking play. There have been small variations in tactics from season to season. Martin O’Neill for example preferred to play a high-press system with players winning the ball back near the opponent’s goal. Whilst Alex McLeish preferred to play with a low-block and close off space whilst waiting for the opponent to make a mistake.
Gabby has generally thrived in counter attacking sides and was notably a vocal critic of Houllier’s attempts to change Aston Villa’s style of play to a more possession based team,
“The manager had his formations and he was not going to change that” the striker said in 2011 and added, “You look at who was left out. Warnock, Ireland and Dunne. It was a crazy season”.
Gabby’s effectiveness as a striker initially saw real progress throughout Martin O’Neill’s time at the club. The young striker’s first full season came in 2006/7 where he scored an impressive 9 goals. He then scored 11 goals in 2007/8, 12 goals in 2008/9 and 13 goals in O’Neill’s final season at the club in 2009/10. Gabby was only a 23-year-old when O’Neill left the club, but he has failed to reach double figures since that time. Houllier famously accused Agbonlahor of spending too much time in the gym, to which the player retorted, “I don’t think he really knew what he was saying.”
Gabby Agbonlahor stats
The most concerning aspect of Agbonlahor’s goal record in recent seasons has been that his barren spells have become increasingly lengthy. Goals have arrived in clusters and consistency has been difficult to maintain. The former academy player failed to score in the league for over a year from September 2011 until November 2012 and his chance conversation rate in the 2011/12 season was a paltry 8.8%.
Gabby could argue that he now has a due role of scoring and creating goals for the team and this shows through scoring 21 goals and contributing 15 assists in the last four seasons. Last year Gabby ranked level with players such as Fernando Torres, Jordan Henderson and Yohan Cabaye (who left Newcastle in January) in terms of 10 team goal contributions. But has the former academy player justified his place on the wing?
Gabby’s offensive contribution last season can be compared to other wide forwards in the league. Gabby had a pass success rate of 75%, averaged 1.5 shots per game, made 1 key pass per game and dribbled on average 0.9 times per match. Jason Puncheon contributed to 9 team goals and averaged a pass success rate of 78.4%, 2.3 shots per game, made 1.4 key passes per game and dribbled on average 1.6 times per match. Peter Odemwingie also contributed to 9 team goals and had a pass success rate of 81%, averaged 1.8 shots per game, made 0.5 key passes per game and dribbled on average 1.7 times per match.
Therefore, if you compare Gabby to other wide players, his ability to keep the ball and dribble past defenders is currently a little disappointing for a player who was so exuberant under Martin O’Neill.
Time for a change?
Gabby’s wide forward partner Andreas Weimann also failed to beat defenders regularly in matches averaging 0.5 successful dribbles per game. These figures may reveal Aston Villa’s problems when playing against teams who play with a low block. In addition, they demonstrate a general lack of technical ability in wide areas. Following some below par performances in pre-season will Agbonlahor now find his place in the team threatened by youngster Jack Grealish?
Grealish’s performances have rightly drawn praise since his return to Villa from Notts County. Fans have been impressed with his enthusiasm, willingness to receive the ball and ability to ghost past players with ease. Grealish represents the modern type of wide player such as Raheem Sterling, Jordan Ibe and Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain who are as comfortable playing in wide areas as they are when they drop in-field. Increasingly, ‘traditional’ English wingers like Stewart Downing, Marc Albrighton and Aaron Lennon are becoming unfashionable.
Crossing the ball is a great skill, but the ability to play through defences and get in behind as Nasri and Hazard are able to do regularly is of arguably greater value. Hopeful crosses into a striker who is normally outnumbered by defenders can result in possession being lost and teams being exposed to dangerous transitions of play. Grealish is therefore vital to Aston Villa if the team wants to become a possession based side (unless Lambert wishes to dip again into the transfer market).
Whether Paul Lambert intends to continue to rely on counter attacks through Gabby and Weimann or genuinely makes a move towards possession based football remains to be seen, but the battle between Gabby and Weimann and Grealish and N’Zogbia is an intriguing one.
One thing seems obvious now however. Gabby Agbonlahor will need to play very well to keep Jack Grealish out of the team as the youngster is now banging very loudly on the door.