The taming of The Beast

A remarkable thing about AFC Wimbledon’s recent push towards the League Two play-off positions it that it has been achieved in spite of – and not because of – the form of their most high-profile striker, Bayo Akinfenwa.

Known as ‘The Beast’, Akinfenwa is certainly a distinctive presence on the pitch. Reported to weigh 16 stone and be capable of benchpressing twice his own body weight, he enjoys a public profile that would be the envy of some Premier League footballers, a place in the Guinness Book of Records as ‘the strongest player in the world’ and even has his own clothing brand.

Bayo Akinfenwa: looking to the future?  (Photo © 2015 Rob Crane)

Bayo Akinfenwa: looking to the future? (Photo © 2015 Rob Crane)

Yet last season that high profile was backed up by his performances on the pitch. He was the fulcrum of the Dons attack, not just using his physical presence to score goals himself but also creating havoc that benefited the likes of poacher-extraordinaire Matt Tubbs. When last summer Akinfenwa announced that he wouldn’t be moving to the USA to play Major League Soccer as had been widely rumoured, the news was welcomed by almost all Dons fans.

But now it’s all so different. Yesterday as the Dons were pushing Oxford United hard, Akinfenwa was brought off the bench to replace the impressive Tom Elliott in attack. The unease on the terrace was palpable and sadly the fans’ worst fears were realised: the Dons almost instantly transformed from a vibrant, pacey side that was causing problems for the visitors into a pedestrian team relying on a hopeful punt towards the big man. The fans' initial disquiet was understandable as it’s unfortunately a pattern that has become well established this season.

Where did it go wrong?

So where did it all go wrong? How did a player go from being the first name on the team sheet last season to being fourth choice now behind Elliott, Lyle Taylor and Ade Azeez?

Some of it – all of it? – is probably due to the slightly different way that his team mates are now delivering the ball to him: last season it mostly seemed to arrive to him at chest height, whereas this season he most often seems to be on the end of hopeful long balls pumped towards his head. The distance between the two targets isn’t physically that much, but it’s a world of difference in terms of end product.

For such a big man, Akinfenwa has a very good touch: give him the ball at his feet and he is more likely than not to control it smartly and distribute it wisely, bringing his team mates into play. (This ability is all the more remarkable considering that someone of his stature presumably rarely sees his own feet!) This good control extends to his chest: he is able to use its size to kill dead a dropping ball before pinging it to one of his colleagues.

In contrast, as we’ve often seen this season, he’s poor in the air. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his weight, he struggles to get off the ground and rarely wins a lofted ball that’s coming down to him from on high. On the infrequent occasions he does get his head to the ball, directional control seems haphazard at best.

Change in approach

Is this change in approach something that has been asked of the players by the management, or is it something that has happened beyond their control? Regardless, the end product is the same: a player whose presence on the pitch sadly now seems to stifle a lot of vibrancy and threat out of the team.

The Dons’ recent good run of form has coincided with the team starting to play what could be described as ‘typical’ League Two football: a high tempo game with an emphasis on balls over the top for the forwards to run on to. But while Wimbledon have adapted, Akinfenwa with his lack of pace understandably has not. We now have a mismatch between the player’s style and the style of the team.

Some might argue that having Akinfenwa up front as a target man is no different than having Elliott up front fulfilling the same role. But there’s a crucial difference between the two players. After his slow start Elliott is now rampant, causing opposition defenders trouble both in the air with his heading ability and on the ground with his pace – whether the ball is played over him to run on to or up to him for an aerial battle, Elliott’s making a difference.

There can be little doubt that Akinfenwa’s time at the club has been beneficial to both parties, feeding off each other’s profile. But whatever the reasons behind the recent disappointments, it now seems increasingly probable that this summer there will be a parting of ways – and if that rumoured MLS move does materialise, it’s likely to be a move that will be beneficial to both club and player.