After Aston Villa's 1-1 draw on Sunday with West Bromwich Albion, all eyes are on the Aston Villa goalscorer, Darren Bent. Paul Lambert decided to drop the talismanic striker to the bench, after Gabriel Agbonlahor and Christian Benteke combined up front in Villa's midweek victory over Manchester City. Understandably, Bent was frustrated to have not started the game, particularly in light of losing the captaincy to Ron Vlaar earlier in September. He has now said something to that effect publicly, which you can find in the Guardian:
"I can't remember the last time [I've been left out of a side]. I only found out when the gaffer read the team sheet out. It's frustrating and disappointing. All I can do is keep coming on and scoring goals, and take it from there. My confidence is back after getting the goal against Southampton. That was a massive boost. I took a knock [on Sunday], but at the same time I tried to get back on to the pitch and work as hard as I could for the team to try to get them back into the game."
He went on to say that he hadn't spoken to Paul Lambert about the decision, although he claims he will do so this week. The author of the Guardian piece, Stuart James, also claims to have seen something that indicates Bent's mental state in how he celebrated his equalizer. I understand where he's coming from, but I'm generally reluctant to read anything into someone's body language, particularly when it's this tendentious. It's a pop psychology trap that a lot of sportswriters fall into, and it's one I'd like to avoid as we consider this case.
That said, I have considerable sympathy for Darren Bent. If we can put this in a broader context, Bent has had a pretty rotten 2012. The ankle injury he sustained in February's draw against Wigan made him a spectator for the most difficult part of Aston Villa's season. Even worse, it meant that he lost what could be his only chance to play for England in a major international tournament in the middle of his prime. Even as the new season began, he was starved for service. The players around him weren't able to play his game the way Gabriel Agbonlahor did when they were firing at the beginning of last season. They aren't capable of delivering balls into the box with the precision and frequency of Stewart Downing and Ashley Young, back when Bent arrived at the club from Sunderland. It's why he begged them to stay, because even after just a few months with the club, he realized what Villa fans all know now. The club doesn't have the sort of depth required to compete at a level that can accomodate a player like Darren Bent, a ruthless poacher who offers little in the way of build-up play and involvement off the ball.
Similarly, it's hard to dismiss the changing of the captaincy as just a cosmetic measure. Most of us, myself included, don't really pay much attention to who's wearing the armband every week. It's difficult for Villa fans to think of Bent as the captain because of how he was awarded the title. Without ceremony, as it was announced that Stiliyan Petrov had contracted leukemia and would be inactive for an indefinite period of time. As a result, Bent had the appearance of a custodial captain, just keeping the armband warm until Stan came back. A lot has changed since then, including the manager, and there's a new fan favourite at Villa Park.
Paul Lambert didn't give Ron Vlaar the captaincy by accident, and it's not an indefensible decision. Vlaar has been solid ever since he arrived from Feyenoord, and Lambert can't be blamed for wanting to capitalize on the sudden popularity of one of his first major signings for Aston Villa, not least because it helps to put a new face on the club. The role of captain is symbolic at best, but it's foolish to tell Darren Bent that, because this particular symbol evidently carries a lot of real meaning for him.
Lambert was careful to insist that Bent's omission from the starting eleven against West Brom was not meant as a slight, telling reporters:
"I don't think Darren has anything to prove to anyone, least of all myself, because he is a natural finisher. It is not about losing his place. I decided to change it and the response was brilliant. I just picked a team I thought would win the game but it's about everybody."
It's difficult to question Lambert's logic. After all, he did a similar thing with Grant Holt at Norwich City. Holt would frequently wear the captain's armband, but he'd just as frequently ride the bench, often coming on late to get a crucial goal just as Bent did on Sunday. It worked to great effect then, as Holt went on to score 15 goals, more than Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli and Luis Suarez. Lambert, as his quotes from Sunday would indicate, is all about the team over the individual. It's a philosophy that's more popular as platitude than it is in practice. Plenty of managers are reluctant to rotate their squads, for reasons that are totally understandable. Many managers, including Martin O'Neill and Alex McLeish, believe that stability is necessary to keep a team performing comfortably. There is something to be said for variety, however, and Paul Lambert has three strikers that all bring different things to the table, and he can't play them all at once.
Bent, as we've established, is an accomplished poacher and probably the best pure striker Aston Villa have had since Juan Pablo Angel, or Dwight Yorke before that. Gabriel Agbonlahor has incredible pace and links up well with his teammates, but there are still questions about his tactical discipline, not to mention his chronic trouble with injuries. Christian Benteke has quickly vaulted himself into consideration for a starting place after putting in strong performances against Swansea City and Manchester City. Neither Bent nor Agbonlahor have Benteke's ability to beat up defences, simply because Benteke is a hulking steamship of a man. However, he was worryingly profligate in front of goal, failing to put away chances that could have given Villa maximum points on Sunday, and he still has a lot of maturing to do.
Ultimately, it's tremendously frustrating as a supporter to learn that one of the few positions that Aston Villa actually has some depth at has become a source of conflict. Every minute spent attempting to configure a starting lineup that can get the best out of Bent, Agbonlahor and Benteke all at once is wasted. It's much more important that Paul Lambert is able to get the defence comfortable with the high line he tried to play against West Brom on Sunday without conceding too many opportunities to streak through on goal like Shane Long did. It's more important that Lambert learns how to get the best out of Karim El Ahmadi, as he's one of the only players Villa have that can slow the game down and develop cohesion without everyone running around recklessly for 90 minutes and giving away the ball (or as I call it, the Brett Holman special.) After all that, it won't really matter which of the three strikers get to start, because the rest of the squad will be comfortable enough to accomodate any combination of them without resorting to the hit-and-hope attitude we've seen all too much of lately.