Gabriel Agbonlahor’s next Premier League goal will leave him alone at the summit as the club’s record Premier League goal scorer. At the risk of sounding too much like Sky, who act as though football was invented in 1992, this is still quite an accomplishment for Gabby.
I was reading Kevin Hughes’ blog on ESPNFC, and he did an excellent job putting the accomplishment – and the man – into perspective. For me, Gabby, at 26, is at the stage of his career where we should all appreciate him for the player he is, as opposed to the player we thought he might be. When he was younger and playing at his best, he looked like he could be a true superstar in the making. The hope was always that consistency would come with experience.
Gabby never did become the consistent, prolific goal-scorer that some had hoped. Since Martin O’Neil left, Gabby’s best football has not come as a striker. Last season, playing on the left, with Darren Bent playing centrally, Gabby kept Villa up. For all the ink spilled over Darren Bent’s goals saving the club from relegation at the end of the 2010-11 season, Gabby’s goals at the beginning of the 2011-12 season did the same thing. We all saw how the club finished last season; without those points that Gabby was largely responsible for securing in the bank, the team would have surely been relegated. That his heroics happened early in the season just means they didn’t fit a narrative of the star saving the club when it was in trouble, but the points counted just the same.
In fairness, Gabby’s play at striker when Darren Bent was injured at the end of last season was part of the reason the club struggled. He was struggling with his fitness, and if the club had other options they may well have used them. Gabby battled with fitness at the beginning of this season, and then to find his role under Paul Lambert. Playing out wide just as he did in the summer and fall of 2011, Gabby has found a bit of that form again.
His current role maximizes his strengths. He has the freedom to cut inside, move, and get into goal-scoring positions. While he will probably never deliver beautifully lifted crosses from the touchline, he can use his pace on the outside to get behind defenders and more importantly create space in the middle of the park for Benteke. Under Martin O’Neil, the team struggled to score at times when they seemed to count on Gabby to score goals. Now under Paul Lambert, the team just needs Gabby to contribute goals.
In reading Hughes’ column, he alluded to Gabby not taking the selfish route, digging his heels in about where he played. The obvious contrast is Theo Walcott, who held Arsenal hostage over a new contract until he was told he would be played as a striker. By putting the team first, the player has turned in some of the best overall performances of his career. Off-the-ball runs to create space and tracking back might not make Match of the Day or merit an England call-up, but people who watch and understand what a real contribution to a team is appreciate it.
At times I have been critical of the player. As good as he has been, and as much as I and a lot of you admire him personally, I wouldn’t etch his name in stone on the team sheet every week. We do have a manager who has proven he feels the same way about any player after all. As Gabby closes in on Dwight Yorke’s record for Premier League goals, I can’t think of another player I would want atop that list.