Darren Bent – The Truth

19 05 2011

When Darren “The Truth” Bent made his big money move from Sunderland to Aston Villa in January 2011, football fans everywhere were divided. For some, he was a striker who guaranteed the most important commodity in the game – goals. Others were adamant that this was symptomatic of the Anglocentric attitude towards scouting among Premier League clubs.

But what is the truth about Darren Bent?

On the face of it, he is surely one of the unluckiest players in the world today. Yes, I know he had a fair slice of luck with that beach-ball goal against Liverpool but take a look at the bigger picture. Last summer, Bent was the only player in the five major leagues of Europe to score 20 goals for a World Cup nation and not be selected for the tournament. Indeed, only Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Cristiano Ronaldo and Antonio Di Natale managed more than Bent’s 24 league goals.

It’s a remarkable statistic that might be explained away by suggesting Bent was some sort of one-season-wonder. Of course, that’s not the case. The Villa striker has now scored more Premier League goals in the past three years than any other player. That’s more than Drogba, more than Rooney, more than Carlos Tevez and certainly more than Fernando Torres. And he’s done it in weaker sides than those players have had the opportunity to play in.

The counter-argument to this is that Bent has not done it and never would do it at the highest level. Not against the best defences in Europe anyway. Again, it’s worth examining the stats.

 

The table above shows Bent’s goalscoring record over the last three seasons against the top six sides in English football. It is quite astonishing. This is not a small sample that has been extrapolated to draw misleading conclusions – this is his record over more than 40 hours of game time against some of the finest sides in Europe. The 2436 minutes equates to a shade over 27 full matches. That’s 20 goals in 27 games against the top six over a three year period.

The key to understanding criticism of Bent is that there is far more to being a top-class centre forward these days than merely scoring goals. Universality is the future, not specialisation. It’s an argument that Stan Collymore articulated when explaining why Bent should not go to the World Cup last summer:

“Even allowing for his fine season, Carlton Cole and Bobby Zamora remain ahead of him. The reason? Well, at international or European club level, touch, awareness of space and an appreciation of team-mates’ positioning are as vital as the ability to score goals.”

The example of Cole was also advanced by Mark Bright and, even if that now feels less appropriate a year on, the issue of bringing others into play is at least a valid one. And besides, Collymore was happy to repeat his criticism of Bent when discussing his impending move to Aston Villa in January of this year:

“It just smacks of desperation. As an instinctive striker he gets a solid A, but as an all-round footballer he gets a D. Holding the ball up, his movement, his awareness, that’s why to me he would be massively overpriced. Being a £20m striker means that you have to be able to score goals but if you’re not scoring goals you can drop off, you can get involved in the play, you can draw other defenders in, you can create from wide positions. There’s a massive question mark about Darren Bent’s ability to fulfil that kind of remit.”

Collymore and – it has to be said – many other pundits were keen to labour the point that Villa should have been looking for a more complete footballer for their money. The Guardian conducted a poll asking if Bent was worth the £18m fee (said to be rising to £24m) and the result showed 76.8% felt the striker was not worth the money.

They were, however, less forthcoming about who this complete footballer might be that would like to come to Aston Villa. Within a couple of weeks of the Bent debate, the agenda had moved on anyway. Edin Dzeko’s arrival at Man City was followed by the £50m move of Fernando Torres and the emergence of £35m man Andy Carroll. The argument that Bent was overpriced was now something of a side issue – and so perhaps it’s better to return to the issue of him ‘just scoring goals’.

This criticism is largely justified. Bent’s technique is rudimentary and his hold-up play ordinary. This is a striker who prefers running onto the ball and, while that does have the advantage of forcing the opposition to play a deeper line, it doesn’t lend itself well to playing an active role in linking the play.

But some context here may help. Comparing Bent to a Rooney or a Messi is ludicrous and irrelevant. Evaluating his record against, say, Jermain Defoe is a more useful exercise. Defoe is also a player who prefers running onto the ball rather than developing the attack with his hold-up play. And yet, he was the man chosen by Fabio Capello, not only to go to the 2010 World Cup, but also to start the vital game against Germany.

It is therefore worthwhile looking at Defoe’s goalscoring record against England’s best teams. His stats over the same three year period against Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham are revealing. Defoe has scored five goals to Bent’s 20. This comes from a total game time of 1774 minutes – a goal every 354.8 minutes. Put simply, Defoe has scored five goals in nearly 20 games against the cream of English football compared to Bent’s 20 in 27. And yet, he was in England’s starting XI and Bent was not on the plane.

Is it possible, therefore, that – even as a £24m man – Bent can be both limited and underrated? Amid the hoopla of his January transfer, as wags everywhere joined in the mockery of Bent, the words of high-profile Norwegian football scout, Tor-Kristian Karlsen, resonated. Karlsen has long bemoaned the premiums paid on English-based talent and so his balanced assessment was revealing:

“For all the criticism he is an established Premier League star who’s proven capable of scoring consistently. The closest you come to an English 20-goals-a-season striker in the top flight. Ideal for any team that plays on the break or employs traditional attacking schemes without sophisticated collective patterns of movement. He has probably found his rightful home at an upper mid-table Premier League side.”

It’s a qualified endorsement but also an acknowledgement that Bent was probably the ideal signing for Aston Villa. The suspicion clearly remains that his limitations would be exposed on the world stage. But, given his record, perhaps Bent – ahead of Defoe and the rest – is a man who has earned the right to find out.

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12 responses

19 05 2011
Dan

Fascinating article that only adds weight to the argument of a southern bias when it comes to England matters.
I was gutted to see him leave Sunderland, and the goals that he has got already for Villa would have almost certainly propelled us into the top 10 spot that we are so desperate to achieve.
I find it hard to wish him luck after what he did, and with the way he let us down, but as a goalscorer, the guy really is second to none.

19 05 2011
Richard

Mate – you have WAY to much time on your hands – get a girlfriend for god’s sake!

19 05 2011
GhostGoal

She left me.
I didn’t notice for a while as I was busy trying to work out Sylvan Ebanks-Blake’s career goals per minute record.

19 05 2011
Peter S

Absolutely brilliant read this. And delivering many of the points I, as a Villafan, have been trying to get across when trying to argue a case for Bent with people claiming he was too expensive. I also want to add that even Gerard Houllier thought Bent should try and get more involved in the build up and do a bit more holding up at times. Obviously without straying too far from his natural, instinctive, one touch game. I think Bent has taken Houllier’s words to heart and actually improved his game since signing for Villa. This would also be the explanation given by Fabio Capello when asked why Darren Bent all of a sudden was back in the fold for England.

19 05 2011
Villarobin

I think Collymore is jealous of Bent to be honest. Ben is main man / top striker at Villa , and well on the way to becoming more of a hero than Collymore , who never forfilled his potential at Villa , the club he loves.

19 05 2011
jamestaylor4

If Villa had, had Bent last season, when they were only 6 points of fourth place, I reckon his goals might have made the difference. It’s also a bit ironic that Harry Reknapp took the mick out of Bent and now he has no strikers that score goals.

19 05 2011
Barry'sboots

Bent has been a fantastic acquisition for us at the Villa. But to get the maximum out of him you need to recognise what he is good at – finishing inside the box – and set the other 10 players up to maximise on this ability. We have started to do this at the Villa – the 4-3-3 really facilitates this – but are an attacking CM’er (Milner back please) and a winger to replace Ash (the Zog please) away from getting this right.

Defoe is a flat track bully, happy to score 5 goals in a game against a poor Wigan side but never able to do it against top sides as he doesn’t have the movement and intelligence to escape the top defenders. He also needs a partner to play off which means that Spurs are sacrificing a man in midfield against most opponents and this can be very difficult, especially against the top sides. Harry is now realising that. Fortunately for us Villa fans, he did not realise how to get the best out of Bent, preferring to back his wife Sandra in a finishing contest!!

19 05 2011
Dave J

Bent speaks on the pitch with his play and no one can argue that not even collymore should learn to curb his mouth a bit.

19 05 2011
Peter

Very good article.Bent is legit and I am glad there are people who get it.

11 06 2011
Ely

test

11 06 2011
Change Rules Football

I just got directed here through The Guardian’s list of best football blogs so I haven’t followed the other posts yet but I must say I’m impressed with the writing here. It’s like a justified reference for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

24 06 2011
Matt

Bent’s a fine player, and I actually agree with many of the points – I just fall on the opposite side here – I don’t think he will ever play a major role in a top-level, competitive team, at national or international level.

http://coxinthebox.blogspot.com/2011/06/why-does-mediocrity-seem-to-follow.html

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