Villa FanZoner Peter Cameron wonders if there is more to Darren Bent's situation then fans realise.
Darren Bent's exile won't end soon
I'm not a conspiracy theorist. Fahrenheit 9/11 sounds like the start of a recipe for roasting the perfect chicken to me. But I suspected last month that there was more than meets the eye to Darrent Bent's omission from the starting line-up. Now that he appears to have lost even his place on the bench, the natural goalscorer we spent years pining after is almost certainly not going to be at the club come February.
It's a highly unusual situation. Paul Lambert's stonewalling at the press conference after the win against Reading was that of a man who had run out of excuses for leaving a striker who has scored 102 Premier League goals out of the squad in favour of a player with 10 goals to his name for Chesterfield. Lambert was asked 22 questions about why Bent's absence and each was met with an answer only served to further cloud the issue.
The whole debacle is made even stranger when you consider Bent started life under Lambert as Villa captain. Something over the course of a few weeks changed his view of the striker from star to surplus. There are rumours that an add-on clause in the initial deal is close to being activated with Bent nearing 50 games for the club, which would make sense if Lambert has realised Bent wasn't quite the player he was expecting. Few would argue that his first few games of the season were anything but underwhelming.
It's probably been overstated over the past few days and it seems vaguely ridiculous hearing people say that Bent does nothing but score goals. But it's not far wide of the mark. It was around this time last year that Opta produced stats showing that he was the player in the league who had the fewest touches of the ball. Fine when a team is geared around creating chances regularly for the front man, but it becomes an issue when these chances are more difficult to come by.
It's little surprise that Bent's most fruitful period for Villa was under Gerard Houllier in a team that included Ashley Young, Kyle Walker and Stewart Downing (don't laugh). The summer they all departed, they took a shedload of creativity with them and, as I've mentioned before, in his first six months at the club all of the assists for Bent's goals came from these three players.
There is a misconception among those who haven't watched him regularly that Darren Bent is a natural finisher. He isn't. He is a player whose qualities allow other people to create for him. A player who supplies the finishing touch to moves, the cherry on top, the icing on the cake. His skill is not in his finishing (he misses his fair share of relatively simple chances) as you'd expect for a goalscorer of his portfolio, but in his movement and anticipation. He has an excellent awareness of where the ball is likely to drop or where to move to give himself the best possible opportunity to score a goal. This constant appetite for getting into position is ideal when there are players to feed it, but in a team lacking creativity, something else might be needed.
The high pressing game which was the hallmark of the impressive performances in the Manchester United and Arsenal games required a team unity and ethos focussed around defending from the front. Christian Benteke looks to have the complete range of qualities you want from a forward leading the line as he has done so far and his physicality and ability to hold up the ball makes him a better option for this role, in this style of play.
What you get from Gabby Agbonlahor and Andrea Weimann occupying the wide areas is not craft or goalscoring but tireless running which panics defenders or deep lying midfielders trying to control a game or build from the back. Of course Lambert could ask Bent to fulfil this role but it is neither his natural inclination nor a cost-effective use of a proven goalscorer who cost £18m two years ago.
So Lambert finds himself with a high earner and saleable asset who is unlikely to feature (effectively anyway) in his preferred starting line-up due to the system he wants to play. With a new transfer policy and the possibility of a chunk of cash coming our way, as well as avoiding activating any potential add on fees you can see sense in Lambert's thinking. It would also account for his repeated assertions that he is doing what he thinks is best the club, has no problem with Bent and rates him as a player.
We need reinforcements in January as our squad is both thin and inexperienced and a few more players, particularly those with a bit of experience, would likely stop us fading so badly in the second half. While we are not exactly throwing the money around, bringing in around £10million for Bent could make a major difference to the squad as a whole, particularly with the effective spending Lambert has shown so far. As an aside, I've been very impressed with Lowton, Westwood and Benteke in particular so far.
Moving forward Lambert needs to get his own squad in place and since he settled on a formation and style he seems to like, results and performances have certainly picked up. It is likely that he sees Bent's departure as a key to helping him continue his rebuild sooner rather than later, and he is both inviting interest and creating an environment where all parties are prepared for his exit.
I'll be disappointed to see Bent leave which at this point seems inevitable. But I have faith in what Lambert is doing and believe that a team that works for each other will be less adversely affected by the players leaving than in previous years when we relied on a limited selection of key players to perform for us. Setting up to get the most out of anyone player limits you to a reliance. A team game based around a collective does not, and new arrivals should be easier to accommodate in that set up, just as departures should be easier to deal with.
Darren Bent has been good for us over the past two years and we'll always be grateful for the goals that effectively kept us in the league in 2011. But if Lambert believes this is the best way to move the club forward I can understand his thinking. For now we have to trust the manager and hope that his plan has an equally significant impact on our fortunes as Bent's arrival did that January.