How do you solve an enigma like Gabby Agbonlahor? Paul Lambert reckons he has a few clues as Villa look to regain their crown as the Midlands’ top dogs.
Lambert is the latest Villa manager to face the Agbonlahor conundrum having seen the havoc the forward wreaked when he took apart Premier League champions Manchester City in the Capital One Cup in the week.
Agbonlahor, who scored two and had a hand in another in the 4-2 win at the Etihad Stadium, has left Lambert with a selection dilemma in attack for the derby clash with Albion.
Belgium striker Christian Benteke has made an impressive start since his £7m move from Genk while it would be harsh to drop Darren Bent after he scored against Southampton last weekend.
Undoubtedly Agbonlahor’s display at City left a strong impression on Lambert, but the Scot is acutely aware that the Brummie frontman must add the vital element of consistency to his game.
“He’s at the age now at 26 where he’s not a young pro and he’s not an elder statesman, so it’s a great time to really kick on and drive his career forward,” said Lambert.
“Gabby has got the potential to do it, there’s no two ways about it. Tuesday night against Manchester City proved that it’s there in abundance.
“He was really unfortunate at the beginning when he got his injury in pre-season. The few games I’ve seen him, he’s been an absolute handful. It’s sustaining that, that’s probably the secret.
“If he can sustain it then he’ll drive his own career on which will benefit ourselves.”
Identification of Agbonlahor’s inability to deliver on a regular basis is one thing, how you convert that into performances on the pitch is quite another.
Lambert has already started to get inside the head of Agbonlahor and hinted that his own brand of tough love could reap dividends for a player who has infuriated the claret and blue faithful as much as he has invigorated them since he broke through as a raw teenager in March 2006.
“I think there are times when he has to know what’s right and what’s wrong and that’s the same for any player,” explained the Villa boss.
“There’s a time when you have to know if you’re doing well and a time where you have to know if you’re not doing it. The other night I thought he was excellent.
“Sometimes there are little subtle things that you say that I think might help. But ultimately, they are the ones that have got to go and do it.
“Once your lads are out on the pitch they’re the ones that have got to go and play it. They’ve got to go and win games, I know how hard a job it is, but I trust them to do it.
“I don’t think his confidence can go much higher than what it is now after the other night, which I think is great. He just needs to finish his game off with goals – that’s all he needs.”
Agbonlahor missed the start of the campaign with a medial ligament injury sustained during the pre-season tour of America and missed the chance to show Lambert precisely what he could do on the pitch.
But the Scot was already aware of Agbonlahor’s explosive pace and the devastating impact he can have on a game having seen it from the away dugout at Villa Park last season when he scored in a 3-2 win over Lambert’s former club Norwich.
“I remember when I came here with Norwich last season and Kyle Naughton, who played at right-back and is no slouch, came up against Gabby and he was really powerful that day,” added Lambert.
“You are never quite sure how quick they are until you work with them. But Kyle Naughton wasn’t slow and Gabby gave him a hard time.
“In any area of the pitch I think pace is an asset.
“Gabby’s got it in abundance, whether he comes in from the left or through the middle or whatever, I think his pace is an asset in the game.
“He is versatile as well and being adaptable is a great thing. It’s a big thing that he can do that and play in either position.
“His pace is explosive and once he gets his head down and runs there are not many who will stop him because he’s that quick. He’s a real asset.”