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A young ‘Villan’ is my goal hero

The best young footballer in the Barclays Premier League scored a stunning hat-trick last week. No, not Gareth Bale – the man voted Young Player of the Year by the PFA – but instead it was my own personal choice, Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke, who grabbed that 17-minute hat-trick in last Monday night’s clash with Sunderland.

In my opinion, Bale was a worthy winner of the senior Player of the Year prize but I felt that someone who had already won the “main” prize two years earlier should not be handed the Young Player Award at the age of 23 and only minutes before he once again picked up the Big One. I have long felt that the Young Player category should recognise emerging talent or even be limited to players in their first full season in the league.

Perhaps the PFA needs to lower the age limit by a year. Perhaps it needs to redefine the criteria for nominating players in this category. Either way, it missed a trick as Benteke produced his brilliant performance against Sunderland just 24 hours after the PFA Awards and in doing so he broke Dwight Yorke’s Aston Villa record for the most goals scored in a Premier League season.

It would also have been fitting to have seen Benteke honoured because he absolutely typifies the new breed of striker plying their trade in English and European football; big, powerful, capable of dropping deep or wide to initiate attacks as well as finish them off.

I would also have given serious thought to naming West Brom’s on-loan Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku as Young Player of the Year had it not been for Benteke’s more consistent contribution in a team that has struggled far more than the Baggies have. Again, Lukaku personifies the “modern” striker.

Former Manchester United and Newcastle United star Andy Cole was with us in the studio recently and he made some telling points about the changing skill-set of today’s striker. His only real criticism of the new breed is that they tend to “check out” or make a run away from goal when a teammate is about to play a ball into the box, rather than looking for a close range finish.

Remember, this is the opinion of a man who scored 189 Premier League goals, many of them grabbed in the maelstrom of the six-yard box. Remember too that former Newcastle and England manager Sir Bobby Robson once said of the prolific goal-getter Gary Lineker that he might not have been the most skilled or stylish but when it mattered most he was prepared to put his head into spots others wouldn’t put their legs. Lineker’s career goal-haul suggests Sir Bobby knew what he was talking about.

Now before anyone thinks Andy Cole was being unduly negative about the modern game, he had nothing but praise for the new-breed of striker like Robin van Persie, whose all-round contribution probably owes much to Andy Cole’s successor at Old Trafford, Ruud van Nistelrooy.

However Andy got me thinking about the impact this new tactical approach to the top-end of the pitch has on the way teams function. I couldn’t help wondering, for instance, why it was that United won five titles in six years with Andy Cole partnering Dwight Yorke or Teddy Sheringham but only managed one title in the five years that Van Nistelrooy spent there?

Yes, the quality of the opposition probably had a lot to do with it but, in a tactical sense, do United and other teams function better as a goal-getting 4-4-2 unit when they are set up to create chances for a goal-poacher in games in which they dominate? While in tougher games, in which they have less of the ball, are they more likely to score when a strike partnership can open up defences with “intuitive” link-up play like that we saw between Yorke and Cole or, say, Kevin Keegan and John Toshack at Liverpool, Dean Saunders and Dalian Atkinson at Villa or Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips at Sunderland?

Thanks to Jose Mourinho (and all the other modern-day coaches) who moved towards a 4-3-3 then 4-2-3-1 formation utilising a Didier Drogba-style striker and relying heavily on the prompting contribution of a Number 10, we have seen the old-fashioned goal-poacher all but disappear from the game.

Ever since Milan’s predatory Filippo Inzaghi hung up his boots after a career that saw him score 70 goals in European club competition alone, the player who “does nothing but score” has become a dying breed. Of the modern breed, Mario Gomez seems to fit that description, even if there are those who would suggest he doesn’t always score. Chelsea’s Demba Ba has a bit of the goal-poacher about him (and the scars to prove it too).

The games are running out for another of our recent studio visitors before his retirement come season’s end. Michael Owen scored 40 goals for his country, more than 200 for some of the world’s biggest clubs and picked up a Ballon D’Or, but he has gone from being a prodigy with the world at his feet to being an unused substitute for Stoke City.

His own physical frailties (especially his hamstring injuries) probably contributed in large part but it did seem obvious in Owen’s case that his career trajectory dipped when clubs became less reliant on the man who ran in behind defences to score and more dependent on the target man who brought midfielders into play.

Owen was the winner of the 1997/1998 Young Player of the Year award but surprisingly never won the senior prize. Perhaps Benteke will do things the other way round. Not surprisingly, the young Belgian is already being linked with a move to several big clubs, even though Villa have said they are ready to turn down offers of £30 million for him.

In the meantime, Benteke might just have to settle for another accolade. If he scores another two goals, he will become the first Villa player to score 20 in a season since Peter Withe back in 1981.

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