As soon as it became clear that Christian Benteke was finally heading for the exit at Aston Villa, the biggest task for the club was always going to be replacing the man who scored 49 times in 101 games for the club and 42% of the team’s total goals last season.
Tim Sherwood has gone some way to filling the hole (no, the chasm) left in the team by the Belgian’s departure by continuing something of a French revolution at Villa this summer, as Lorient striker Jordan Ayew joins Lille midfielder Idrissa Gueye and Nice left-back Jordan Amavi in moving to Villa Park. Ayew arrives with something of a reputation for occasional attitude problems and with a question mark over the fee – can he be the player Villa need him to be?
Ayew comes from excellent footballing stock, something which has helped and hindered him in equal measure. Helped because he clearly has natural talent inherited from his father, three-time African Player of the Year Abedi Pele. Hindered because he is yet to come close to living up to his dad’s dizzying heights, and because he has often been overshadowed by his former Marseille teammate and older brother Andre, now of Swansea City.
Ayew Jr’s record at Marseille was hardly earth-shattering – just 22 goals in 147 games – but it is asterisked with the fact that he wasn’t established as first choice for the club. He started just 45% of his Ligue 1 games for the club, generally finding himself behind players such as Andre-Pierre Gignac, Loic Remy and his brother in the pecking order up front. Even when he did start, he was often made to play out wide to accommodate the bigger names in the middle.
Perhaps consequently, he only racked up double figures in Ligue 1 for the first time last season in his lone year at Lorient when, as opposed to his Marseille days, he was relied upon as a primary source of goals. His 12 strikes while often playing as a lone attacker for the struggling side was an impressive total, and made him one of just two players in the bottom half of the French top flight to score 11 times or more.
A new focal point?
That quality of finding the net in a side struggling for both points and attacking creativity is one which Villa fans will be encouraged to see. Ayew is also decent with the ball at his feet, with a success rate in taking on defenders of more than one in two last season (a better ratio than any Villa player apart from Fabian Delph), can finish from both close range and outside the box, and is able to beat defenders in the air – although he is by no means Benteke’s equal in that department.
However, perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the Ghanaian’s game is that he can play anywhere across the frontline and is capable of contributing from deep as well as poaching in the box, one area in which he may have an advantage over Benteke. Although the Belgian could create chances for himself, Ayew is also adept at holding the ball up and bringing team-mates into play, a skill which saw him add five assists in Ligue 1 last year – more than any Villan managed over the course of the season.
This could be vital for Villa, as adding goals from midfield is something which the club have desperately struggled with in recent times. If Ayew can help supply the likes of Jack Grealish, Scott Sinclair and Carles Gil with opportunities in front of goal, Villa could have found themselves a very useful player indeed.
Astute investment or leap of faith?
One big question has been the price Villa have paid to secure Ayew. Estimates in the media of the amount Villa have shelled out for the 23-year-old range from £7m to £13m. The bottom end of this scale would represent good value for a relatively young striker who scored double figures at a struggling side in a major European league; the top end would undoubtedly be a gamble on a man who is yet to play outside France in his career.
The general consensus seems to be that he ended up costing somewhere around the £9m mark, an amount which would have been seen as a huge risk just a couple of years ago. However, the landscape has changed in recent months, not least because the new Premier League TV deal means that clubs know they are guaranteed a huge increase in windfall as long as they stay in the top flight. Also, since Christian Benteke was sold for an extremely publicised fee of £32.5m, it is now common knowledge that Villa’s pockets are very deep at the moment, and so clubs will be looking to squeeze every last pound out of us.
Though the striker only turns 24 in September, it has been doubted whether he can start converting his potential into on-field displays. A large factor in this is attitude, another facet of Ayew’s game which has received criticism during his time in France. However, he has already gone some way to endear himself to Villa fans by being so vociferous in his desire to move to the club, reportedly sacrificing a £800,000 signing-on fee to make the deal happen.
A fiery personality he may have, but the club desperately need players who want to play for us, and, judging by his quotes upon arrival (although the Delph debacle cannot help but foster cynicism about the perpetual Aston Villa PR machine) Ayew is one who does.
He revealed that speaking to Sherwood was all he needed to be convinced that he should sign for Villa, claiming that “it took 10 seconds to work out he was the right coach for me and Aston Villa was the right team for me”.
Despite the crushing losses of Benteke and Delph, the powers of persuasion that Sherwood seems to have in attracting players to Villa is encouraging. It’s not the first time we’ve heard a player cite Tim’s patter as a contributing factor to their arrival in Birmingham, and with the club and the fans having put their faith in him as a long-term manager of the club, it’s great to hear the players doing the same.
Ayew has a penchant for going missing from time to time in ‘lesser’ league games, but he also has a skill set which could be just what Villa need up front. A word of warning though: as much as Benteke was an unknown quantity when he arrived three years ago (perhaps more so than Ayew is), it is extremely unlikely that Villa will have unearthed a player who will show the same calibre and have the same impact upon arrival.
Ayew needs time to settle, as all but the very greatest foreign imports into the Premier League do, and he isn’t a solution to Villa’s striker problems on his own. Villa need further attacking reinforcements – Emmanuel Adebayor is widely expected to arrive in the coming weeks, but whether he does the trick as a short-term fix is another question. If Ayew can hit the ground running and hit a few early goals this season, however, he could quickly become a fan favourite.
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