Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Why Does Mediocrity Seem to Follow Darren Bent Around?

I don't particularly want this blog to be regarded as too "edgy" or contrarian (or do I? Maybe criticising the Old Firm rivalry in my first post wasn't the best way to go), but watching England's tepid performance against Switzerland the other day reminded me of how I feel about Darren Bent, so here's blog entry number two.

Well, maybe overrated isn't the right word. My problem with Bent isn't related to a shortage of "talent" - he is undoubtedly an excellent goalscorer - it's more the fact that in the modern game, Bent simply cannot succeed at the highest level.

Journalist Hugo Asch once said that modern-day forwards are "a combination of tanks and Formula One cars". A prime example of this is Didier Drogba, who is as fast and powerful as they come. Players like Fillipo Inzaghi and Michael Owen have been left behind by the development of the modern game; they're simply too one-dimensional to work in the lone-striker systems so many teams operate now. Defending now is too good, players too fit, to provide the little half-chances that the likes of Owen used to pounce on. Hanging on the shoulder of the last defender isn't enough either.

Bent is not quite as archaic; he is faster and stronger than both players (now, anyway; Owen was the faster player before being plagued by injury), and can lead the line with some effectiveness even in an environment as physical as the Premier League. However, he is not quite tall or dominating enough to be a target-man like Liverpool striker Andy Carroll - but he is faster, and a better finisher. He is not refined enough to create anywhere near as well as Wayne Rooney - but he is faster, and a better finisher. He also lacks the dynamism of someone like Jermain Defoe. Bent does sport several advantages over the dimunitive Tottenham man, but it is what Defoe can do outside the box that has ensured Defoe has far more international caps.

Bent transferred to Aston Villa in January
for a fee potentially as high as £24 million

Top-notch strikers now need to be able to create chances for themselves on a regular basis. Carroll can do that with sheer force; Rooney can do that with his inventiveness; Defoe with his dynamic movement and occasionally by running at defenders and full-backs, cutting inside to shoot. Bent simply does not do this often enough. This might go some way to explaining the fact that he was snubbed for World Cup Squads in both 2006 and 2010. In the world of top-level international football, dominated by multi-functional players, Bent falls a little short.

It is possibly because of this that despite the impressive scoring record (Bent has scored the most goals in the Premier League since 2005), no top club has taken a gamble on him and he has a conspicuous lack of England caps. In fact, one can draw another comparison with Michael Owen here; when Newcastle purchased Owen from Real Madrid in 2005, no top club was prepared to pay the £18 million fee. Much like Bent, in the modern-day game Owen is a good player to have (as Manchester United do now - tellingly, on a free transfer) but he is not a player to consistently rely on at the top level of the game.

Bent's highest league finish remains 8th, with Tottenham in 2008/09 - a finish that could be put down in many ways to the remarkable revival that took place under Harry Redknapp and continued after Bent left the club the following summer. Before Bent's spell at Tottenham, the London club finished 5th twice. Since Bent has left, they have finished 4th and 5th. It would be foolish to say that Bent is the only reason for this; Tottenham had a variety of issues in those seasons, all the way up to the boardroom. However, to ignore the conundrum and problems he caused would be equally foolish.

In 2006/07, Tottenham had Robbie Keane and Dimitar Berbatov in top form. Both are creative strikers that were also able to finish, and it is because of this that they combined so effectively. Bent was added to the mix and it all fell apart.

The next season, with Keane and Berbatov gone, Tottenham changed the way they played and loaded up on attacking midfielders and wingers to provide the creativity; Giovani Dos Santos, Luka Modric and David Bentley were brought in to play behind and support Bent.

Bent continued to feed on scraps and scored a few goals, but Tottenham as a team were even worse. Luka Modric spent most of that season deployed just off the striker, in contrast to his current position of Central Midfield. In order to form a synergy with a player of Modric's class, the striker needs to be savvy and with a creative eye. Bent lacks that, and that is the difference. It is what makes him a player who, in the modern game, simply cannot work at the highest level.

Maybe, then, pundits should be less surprised when wondering why Bent fails to make the England squad, why he is not an automatic starter and why he hasn't found himself at a top club yet. Oddly enough, I didn't think the fee Aston Villa paid for him was as extortionate as some made it out to be. It is a fee that potentially rises to £24 million, but for Villa, relegation would be far more costly.

That transfer is probably Darren Bent in a nutshell; he turned not-long promoted Sunderland into a solid, midtable side and now he will probably solidify Aston Villa as well. But that's all; one could say that Bent is more of a survivor than he is a winner. Chelsea, Manchester United et al want to do more than just survive, and the same must surely ring true with England.

There's no conspiracy when it comes to leaving Bent out of the England starting XI; just savvy managers knowing his shortcomings. His recent resurgence in an England shirt has been good, but at a World Cup or European Championship, it is likely that he will be found out - or left out.


  1. Well argued, but I prefer this interpretation of Bent:

  2. Surely the success of Javier Hernandez this season shows that there is still a market for a goal poacher? Hernandez is effectively a slightly worse version of Owen in his prime and had a brilliant year despite not having a tremendous amount of skill or out-of-the-box ability.

    Twitter: @mufcjosh