Dark, ominous clouds have become a permanent fixture at Villa Park in recent times, as evident from the club’s recent kit launch. The aftermath of Martin O’Neill’s resignation coupled with huge financial losses and the departure of key players has seen the club plummet towards the foot of the table. Even the appointment of promising manager Paul Lambert has failed to lift the spirits of fans still reeling from the soul-destroying reign of Alex McLeish.
The recent activity from the summer transfer window offered more questions than answers, as the club steered clear of experienced Premier League professionals and instead decided to supplement their already significant number of promising youngsters. However, the return of striker Gabriel Agbonlahor – without wanting to endorse an overused cliché – will feel like a new signing.
Agbonlahor can no longer hide behind his tag as ‘a star in the making’, instead the onus will be on the 25-year-old to act as a talisman as Lambert begins his rejuvenation process. Incredibly, this will be his eighth season as a member of the Villans first-team but few could argue that he has reached his full potential. His lightning speed is his best and sometimes only positive attribute, with many supporters acknowledging that a vast improvement is needed if he is to torment the league’s best defenders.
In recent weeks, the former England international has voiced his desire to play a central role in the heart of Villa’s attack. In order to fashion these claims into a reality he must first match or perhaps better the strike-rate of team-mate Darren Bent, a tall order for a player who struggles to nudge his goal tally into double figures. Furthermore he will have to fend off the challenge of Andreas Weimann and new signing Jordan Bowery, who have replaced Agbonlahor as the talented youngsters trying to infiltrate the starting XI.
The fortunes of Aston Villa will rely heavily on Lambert’s ability to coax the very best out of his players, especially as the squad is littered with individuals desperately clinging onto former glories or struggling to fulfil their much-publicised promise. The former Norwich manager is also renowned for his love of big, burly target men as evident from his affection towards Grant Holt and Steve Morison. This may also highlight why he decided to spend £7m on Genk’s 6 foot 6 inch behemoth Christian Benteke on transfer deadline day.
Whereas Darren Bent harbours the capability to be deployed as a lone striker, I can’t see Agbonlahor effectively shielding the ball away from the physically more dominant defenders. Despite his reluctance to do so, he may have to give up the limelight and begin reinventing himself as winger who can also operate as an inside forward. He may currently lack the creative flair to conjure up an inch perfect cross but his pace and trickery is far more likely to be effective up against a lone full-back. It’s no secret that Villa have failed to replace the attacking wide players of Ashley Young or Stewart Downing and even with the emergence of Marc Albrighton, there is still a vacant role on the flanks waiting to be filled.
If Agbonlahor is gifted his chance to operate as Villa’s fixed point of attack, he must reproduce the sort of displays that previously raised fans to their feet. If his shooting boots desert him then he must continue to hound the opposition with tenacious displays, even if it means letting someone else hog all the goal-scoring headlines. In the absence of Stilian Petrov, the club has lost its influential leader and who better to take up the mantle than a local lad and lifelong fan of the club.
I still believe there’s a world-class footballer desperate to break free from within Gabriel Agbonlahor; I just hope this is the season we finally get to see him.
Join me on Twitter @theunusedsub