As Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa side have toiled under the pressures of the Premier League this season, if there’s one man that can’t be accused of not pulling his weight in the side, the chances are it’s Darren Bent. Primarily, because he hasn’t really had the chance.
While the ex-Ipswich Town man started the first six games of the season, things have soured incredibly quickly for him since then. Dropped in favour of summer signing Christian Benteke, Bent has started only one game since the 4-1 loss to Southampton in September, in which coincidentally he also scored his last goal.
Now regardless of Aston Villa’s credentials for Premier League survival, in Darren Bent, Villa have an asset that clearly distinguishes them from the rest of the sides that sit in and around them. While the sides in their vicinity find themselves struggling for much in the way of a regular goalscorer to even start their games, Paul Lambert has a man who’s part of the elite Premier League hundred club. And he can’t even make the bench.
Bent is of course, one of a select collection of players to have scored over 100 goals within the English top flight. Out of the recognized strikers in that list still playing, only Robin van Persie, Jermain Defoe, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney have scored more than him. Former glory and dazzling statistics it would appear, don’t do much for Lambert.
The common consensus seems to be that if you offered Bent – who burnt an £18million size hole in the Villa Park pockets in 2011 – to most teams in this league, they’d bite your hand off. Now while that sentiment is perhaps indisputable in terms of the relegation candidates, does that really ring quite so true for the rest of our top flight’s teams?
As a pure goalscorer, Darren Bent’s credentials within this league remain indisputable. Following a raft of goals back in the old First Division with Ipswich, following the England man’s staggering 18 goal breakthrough season with Charlton Athletic in the Premier League, there’s been no looking back.
A finisher amongst one of the most naturally gifted this country has produced in recent times, there has never been any real secret blueprint to getting the best out of Bent. Play him on the shoulder of the last defender, keep the play relatively direct and always look to be playing the ball in front of the hitman. His style of play has stood the test of time; it doesn’t require drastic tactical upheaval and if you get it right, history suggests Bent will always repay you back with goals.
Although while basing your team around the goal scoring prowess of Bent will all but guarantee you goals, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee you success.
Defining success is a notion that is relative to each individual club and across Bent’s career, he’s never played for a club that have been challenging at the top end of the table. Which considering his 102 Premier League goals and counting, seems slightly bizarre.
And if you take a look at those who dine at the Premier League 100 club table, they hardy all boast a gleaming medal count – Emile Heskey and Dion Dublin are living testament to that. But from the Premier League winners in Dwight Yorke and Didier Drogba, to those who haven’t attained a league medal in Robin van Persie and Jermain Defoe, the vast majority of the 23 players to have scored more than a century of top flight goals, have at least tasted high finishes of either fourth or above.
Darren Bent has never finished higher than eighth with a club in a Premier League season. And even then, that was in a term with Tottenham Hotspur considered to be amongst his worse. Harry Redknapp certainly thought so, after he infamously derided Bent for missing a sitter against Portsmouth before selling him in the summer.
It’s easy to be elitist when critiquing a team with more modest ambitions than the bigger clubs, but you can’t shake the feeling that basing your season’s ambitions around Bent might sometimes profit the player potentially more so than the club.
The 2009-10 season saw Darren Bent put away a staggering 24 league goals for Steve Bruce’s Sunderland side. Although far from firing them the Black Cats onto a further plateau of ambition, it was only good enough for a 13th placed finish – coincidentally, the average finish of Premier League teams fielding Bent as a first choice striker.
Was that entirely Bent’s fault? Absolutely not, but while the rest of that side wouldn’t necessarily have been expected to finish much higher, given how the dynamic of the side was set up to favour Bent’s skillset, Sunderland weren’t far away from hitting the glass ceiling that playing in such a way inhibits.
Should Bent have been plying his trade 10 or maybe 15 years ago, he may well have a far more successful resume, or even a Premier League winners medal to his name. But the game is changing on these shores.
Favouring Jordan Bowery on the bench over Darren Bent in recent games, as Lambert did against Arsenal and Reading, is as illogical as it is ludicrous. But as strange as it sounds, the modern day striker in this league has to do so much more than simply score goals. Playing only nine passes all game, as Bent did in his last Premier League start against Southampton, simply isn’t contributing enough to what is a struggling Aston Villa side.
Christian Benteke doesn’t offer as many goals, but he does offer so much more in both building a lead and defending one. Tailoring the side to catalyze Darren Bent’s striking gifts will get Paul Lambert goals. But given the weaknesses of the rest of the team, ones that will only be highlighted playing so one-dimensionally, those gifts could also see them relegated.