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Gabriel Agbonlahor: Local Boy

Aston Villa Blog’s Ollie Scrimgeour discusses Aston Villa’s Player of the Month for August, Gabby Agbonlahor, his development at the club and where he may be best deployed by Alex McLeish.

A quick look so far at the career of the ultimate Villa boy, why last season was tough and how this season could be huge for Gabby Agbonlahor.

There are not many players today that feel quite as passionately about the club they play for than Gabriel Agbonlahor. Born in 1986, just minutes from Villa Park, Gabby has been a genuine, avid fan throughout his whole life, and has lived the dream of every other Villan for the past five years. To say that the club is in his blood is about as accurate as the cliché can get for any footballer, and he is continuing to show his desire to succeed at Aston Villa with his recent form.

So there is no questioning his motivation and ambition when he wears the famous claret and blue, and indeed his record in the shirt would suggest there is no need to worry about his ability either. Nevertheless, I might suggest that he is still not being given the opportunity to fulfill all of these attributes to his potential in the wide left position he has been given by Alex McLeish so far this campaign. In addition, it could be argued that the decision to play him in this position is hindering the balance of the team.

First though, a look at his career up to now.

Accidental Starlet

In March 2006, Agbonlahor made his Premier League debut for Aston Villa at the age of 19; David O’Leary forced to start him against Everton at Goodison Park due to injuries. He scored in the game, and in spite of the fact Villa went on to lose 4-1, the necessity to play Agbonlahor delivered, albeit prematurely, a new hero for Villa fans.

The local boy went on to play first team football regularly for Villa, playing up front and occasionally on the right wing. He worked hard to improve his touch, increase his strength and hone his finishing skills. The hard work paid off because the striker, and I emphasize that he is a striker, notched his goal tally up by one or two more each season. Here are his goal-scoring statistics for his first five Premier League Seasons:

Season Apps Goals
2005/06 9 1
2006/07 38 9
2007/08 37 11
2008/09 36 12
2009/10 36 13

Evidently, he was growing as a player and quickly became one of the Premier League’s best English talents, earning himself a call-up to Fabio Capello’s national squad in February 2008. He didn’t play on this occasion but made his debut for England on 15 November 2008, in a friendly against Germany, having a goal disallowed and receiving high praise in the process. His first and only competitive cap for England came in October of 2009, when Agbonlahor started and assisted a goal.

His career had started brightly and while he still had his critics, it seemed he would only get better.

Damage by Management

As football’s system of injustice would have it, Agbonlahor went through something of a tough time, not so coincidentally coinciding with the departure of Martin O’Neill and the arrival of Gerard Houllier.

In fairness, Agbonlahor was injured for large periods of last season’s disappointing campaign under the ailing management of Gerard Houllier. Some suspected that the player, whose speed is quite evidently his most potent asset, had bulked up too much in the gym, had lost a yard of the pace and had become injury prone due to the pressure on his body.He scored a mere three goals twenty five appearances in the Premier League, which must have been painful for the player who lives to play for Villa.

However, and this is a significant point – it was in keeping with the team’s performances that season, and there were very few pointing to Agbonlahor’s lack of goals as the principal reason for a comparatively dismal year.

Instead, it was seen as a failing on Houllier’s part, who seemed incapable of correcting Villa’s tactical incompetence and recurring issues at the back. Blaming the manager is easy – even I would argue that – but not on this occasion. There was complete unrest in the dressing room, and in Friday’s Telegraph it has emerged that even Gabriel Agbonlahor, regarding whom I’ve used a number of quite unnecessary clichés to illustrate his adoration for the club, came close to quitting during Houllier’s charge. The striker had this to say on Thursday night:

“At one stage I did think about it [leaving]. I thought if this is how it is going to stay and the manager is going to stay here, with this formation, then I would have to leave. It hurt more as a Villa fan and local boy.”

It is unfortunate that Martin O’Neill parted company with Agbonlahor and Aston Villa when he did, because he had been such an important mentor for players like the young forward. Quite contrarily, it was fortunate, in terms of resolving certain issues at Villa Park, that Gerard Houllier left the club when he did, because it has since been made apparent that he was not at all popular among the players, who claim that he rarely even spoke to them.

Coming of Age

This season, Villa find themselves unbeaten after four games and certain key players have been doing well – Agbonlahor perhaps the most notable. Alex McLeish has divided opinion to say the least, but there can be little doubt that he is probably exceeding the expectations that many Villa fans had before the kick-off of 2011/12. Nevertheless, I am of the opinion that both McLeish and Agbonlahor could both find themselves implicated in the reasons for underachievement this season if the tactical situation isn’t carefully considered, and reconsidered.

Agbonlahor has started the new season out on the left wing, with two goals in four games, and after collecting player of the month on the prestigious Aston Villa Blog, many are suggesting he has found his best position there. I am not convinced.

First and foremost, let us consider once again the repercussions of Agbonlahor playing on the left wing, as opposed to his natural position up front.

The graphic (right, courtesy of demonstrates the usual formation and his position this season.

It should be noted that Agbonlahor is not left footed, and while it enables him to cut in on his right and shoot – like he did so magnificently against Blackburn – his deliveries into the box are often lacking in accuracy and would not create as much of a menace as N’Zogbia could if he were out on that wing.

Agbonlahor on the left wing means that Marc Albrighton who is perhaps the most talented of Villa’s young players, cannot find a spot in the starting lineup because N’Zogbia is occupying his favoured right midfield position. Albrighton on the right with N’Zogbia on the left would make far more sense, in a number of ways. Defensively, Agbonlahor is not suited, nor is he inclined to get involved in that area. Therefore, Stephen Warnock is often isolated against opposition right midfield and right back, resulting in more crosses into the Villa box than would be the case if we employed natural right and left midfielders.

Furthermore, Albrighton is one of the best crossers of the ball I’ve seen for a long time in such an attractive kit, with the pace to get a yard on a defender before distributing. Agbonlahor, playing up front for the last moments against Everton in the last game, benefitted from this, displaying his centre forward attributes to meet Albrighton’s cross and score. These are the aspects of the game that McLeish seems to be overlooking by playing Agbonlahor left and Albrighton on the bench. With Heskey injured for a few weeks, there is now a great opportunity to apply this system, and as far as I’m concerned, to exploit our opponents.
Looking Back

In addition to the essential alteration of Agbonlahor and Albrighton, it is important to analyse the different formations utilised by Martin O’Neill and Gerard Houllier to fully understand which tactic best suits Agbonlahor.

As this graphic shows, under Martin O’Neill, Agbonlahor was played up front alongside John Carew. He was able to work with his partner to cause trouble for defences. His ability to latch onto flicks from the big Norwegian and his good composure in front of goal saw him score thirteen goals in O’Neill’s last season in control at Villa Park. There can be no doubt that when played with a strike partner, Agbonlahor is at his most effective.

(Image and statistics courtesy of

On the other hand, there was the formation most commonly used by Gerard Houllier during his season long spell as boss. Agbonlahor was played either up front on his own or on one of the wings, and the dramatic loss of form he suffered as a result was evident in both his poor goal tally and his expression of frustration in his interview on Thursday. Gabby Agbonlahor is a good player, but even the most biased Villa fans would accept that his touch is not the best. He does not necessarily possess the capacity to hold the ball up and dribble round people on his own. He is at his most threatening when played through, or one on one with the last defender, or even attacking the ball with his head. To reiterate, Agbonlahor is best in a two-man strike force.
Moving Forward

Gabby Agbonlahor is a key player for Aston Villa. The results are there to see – he is a goal scorer when played correctly, and that is exactly what is needed currently. Villa are struggling to score, while the defence is attracting a lot of praise.

The goal against Blackburn showed primarily that Agbonlahor is a super finisher. Moreover, his goal against Everton was typical of the forward on form, as he showed predatory instinct, racing in front of his defender and heading home. He’s a Villan through and through, but he’s also an out and out striker.

Undoubtedly, Darren Bent is a high-class hit man too, but often appears as isolated as Gabby did up front last season. Playing alongside one another, they have the potential to create one of the fastest, most prolific attacking partnerships in the Premier League.

After a season of difficulty last term, it would seem that Agbonlahor has made a very quick turnaround, as his form is exemplary. If he is employed in the right position and formation, so will the results be.

To finish, the simplest but most definitive of thoughts from John Terry, who is a centre back for Chelsea and England (not a left or right back):

“Agbonlahor is a nightmare to play against”.

Just play him up front, McLeish.

Follow Ollie on Twitter @olliescrim

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