2019/20 Player Reviews | Adebayo Akinfenwa: Beast Unburdened

This series of in-depth looks at our stars of this ridiculous season continues with quite literally the biggest of them all. Nineteen years into his legendary career, we’re still enjoying the beauty of the Beast.

The recent history of Adebayo Akinfenwa prompts many a thought-provoking question: Why didn’t he call his book ‘My Adebayography’? Where has he been on the first weekend of February the last two years? 😉 How is our greatest Football League signing still SO GODDAMN GOOD at 37 going on 38?

The short answer is that he’s the most unique player in the game, he never had any pace to lose, and he totemically fits into our system. The long answer? Well, that’s probably best left for the great man himself to explain. Besides, it doesn’t really matter how he’s still operating at the peak of his powers; we can just count ourselves very fortunate that he is.

Sitting on ten goals (the last of them the record-breaker at Doncaster, of course) – only five short of League One’s top scorers bar the absolute cheat code that is Ivan Toney – and averaging 0.5 per 90 – alongside the likes of Ipswich’s James Norwood and Rochdale’s veteran poacher Ian Henderson, the third tier’s leading marksman this century – when football pressed pause, Bayo is on course to finish as our top* league scorer for the fourth straight season – i.e. every one since his polarising arrival in July 2016. He’s also our number one provider with five assists and ties Joe Jacobson for overall goal contributions (15). Just as with our magic left-back, we’d be stuffed without him. If you thought he was a gimmick when he burst through that curtain, you know what, fine – plenty did – but if you still think he’s a gimmick now, what game(s) have you been watching?

*joint top with Jacobson in 2018/19

Wycombe League Scorers 2019/20

Wycombe League Scorers 2019-20

League One Top Scorers 2019/20

League One Top Scorers 2019-20
*Returned to parent club, **Winger/midfielder

On the eve of the new season, we had three out-and-out strikers on the books: Craig Mackail-Smith – who’d spent the second half of 2018/19 with Notts County and would inevitably depart on loan again – Alex Samuel and Bayo. We’d rather pushed the boat out on new wingers, but it was becoming fairly apparent that we’d reprise the ‘job share’ in the middle of a front three. Samuel and Bayo have only spent 318 minutes on the pitch together – out of a possible 3,089. They’ve only started together three times: in the opening game, the Welshman occupied the wide right role which would become David Wheeler’s and most recently Paul Smyth’s, while unusually he partnered the Beast in September’s loss at Gillingham – albeit for 29 minutes until he sustained the rib injury which would sideline him for two months – and February’s win over Bristol Rovers, both occasions on which Gareth Ainsworth employed the dreaded diamond.

Despite this splitting of the workload, though, the most senior member of our squad has still completed 14 full 90s this term – and more minutes than any League One outfield player his age or older with the exception of Doncaster’s evergreen James Coppinger. Even more applaudably, he’s the second oldest active striker in the English professional game behind 40-year-old Aaron Wilbraham of Rochdale. Even taking into account how his uniqueness arguably affords him greater longevity (although you can offset that with the knee troubles which have afflicted him), his consistently high performance levels should inspire awe in all of us.

Akinfenwa 2019-20 Minutes Breakdown

Akinfenwa 2019-20 Appearance Types

We have seen the ‘Little and Large’ Kashket-Akinfenwa strikeforce a handful of times – notably, and game-changingly, during August’s classic comeback against Southend – but 4-3-3 remains our go-to formation and for the most part, the great man – the big man – has been the main man at the business end of the pitch. And not just in a Wycombe context; you could convincingly argue his case for inclusion in a league-wide ‘squad of the season’. Here’s a juicy stat to help his case on that front: in 2019/20, only eight players still in League One* have contributed to a goal more frequently than Bayo, who scores or assists every 132 minutes. To add some perspective, that places him ahead our recent nemesis Paddy Madden, Tyler Walker – now a Nottingham Forest regular following his prolific loan spell at Lincoln – and the top provider in the division, Liam Feeney of Blackpool.

*Marcus Forss (recalled by Brentford from his loan spell at AFC Wimbledon) and Marcus Maddison (on loan Peterborough at Hull) would make it ten

In fact, had Bayo set up or bagged just one more before this unexpected interlude, he’d be enjoying the best season in the quarters – and until such time as the coronavirus crisis dictates otherwise, that remains perfectly possible. Ask Wanderers fans to pick their standout performers of the campaign and Darius Charles and Jacobson’s names typically pop up the most, but the Beast has to be right in the conversation. Perhaps the only reason he isn’t is that he’s excelled for us for so long that his brilliance is simply less pronounced – but it’s still there alright.

Akinfenwa Wycombe Goal Contributions by Season

Akinfenwa Wycombe Seasons
Green denotes best season

The numbers don’t lie, but as ever, there’s plenty they can’t tell us – such as how he draws defenders in as though magnetising them, distracting them from what should be their primary focus, quite often with costly consequences. This doubling up can serve as an effective means of defending Bayo, but it’s no foolproof strategy. Take the opening goal in September’s 3-0 win at Rochdale, for example – scored by Fred Onyedinma but made possible by the Beast’s very presence.

Rochdale Screengrab 1

As Alex Pattison flicks on Dom Gape’s cross, two defenders are in the vicinity of Bayo, for whom the flick-on presumably is intended.

Rochdale Screengrab 2

The ball sails well beyond Bayo, so he’s no longer in play – so to speak – but by over-focusing their attention on him, the defenders have left themselves somewhat stranded, unable to recover and clear their lines – and crucially, Fred has timed his run into the box perfectly.

Rochdale Screengrab 3

They scramble but are powerless to stop Fred, who finds himself with time and space and the goal at his mercy.

Rochdale Screengrab 4

It’s a good finish from Fred, but Bayo has been instrumental to the move without having to lift a finger. David Wheeler’s winner against MK wasn’t altogether disimilar – you can see an exhausted-looking Russell Martin having to worry about who’s behind him.

Assuming that every cross is going to fall his way or that he’s going to get on the end of it are understandable but risky assumptions to make. If neither transpires, you’ve over-committed to a battle you never have to fight and potentially left yourselves hopelessly exposed. And even if your commitment is vindicated, who’s to say you’re going to win the battle? The numbers suggest that it’s pretty much a straight 50-50.

League One Strikers 2019/20 by Offensive Aerial Win %

League One Strikers 2019-20 Offensive Aerial win %
>899 minutes played, data via WhoScored.com

League One Strikers 2019-20 Offensive Aerials Contested v Won

If not go 2-on-1, how else can you try to nullify the threat? Some managers like to hold a high line in an attempt to defend him outside the box. Needless to say, that also comes with its drawbacks. It’s pointless if you don’t win the second ball – as Ipswich found out as David Wheeler equalised at Adams Park on New Year’s Day, latching on to the Beast’s frankly massive backwards header.

Even Bolton, who took the same approach and restricted him to a measly four aerial wins out of 16, fell foul of his raw strength in the build-up to our points-sealing penalty there in February. He could barely bring the ball under control but nonetheless managed to suck in two opposing players and afford Wheeler a little extra time to make the decisive pass, which, had Fred not been scythed down by the goalkeeper, would have been at least a key pass – something he produces at a rate of almost two per 90, second only to JJ among Wycombe players. No amount of strategising can combat brute force – well, apart from the ubiquitous ‘pull his shirt until the ref tells you to stop, but carry on anyway’ – and he uses that force for maximum benefit to the team.

With regards to individuals who’ve effectively kept Bayo at bay in 2019/20, only one springs straight to mind: Aaron Pierre. The former Chairboy more or less marked him out of our home win over Shrewsbury back in November (Bolton’s Yoan Zouma put up an admirable resistance in the season opener, but the big man still had a big day, winning the aerial battle and creating a raft of chances). Perhaps you’ve got to know the Beast – as well as being a bit of a unit yourself, as Pierre certainly is – to tame the Beast.

* * *

Back to those goals of his, then. If someone came up to you and said they’d never heard of this Akinfenwa fella (imagine), producing the radar below would give them quite a clear idea of what he’s all about. Stylistically, he belongs in a class of his own among strikers.

Akinfenwa 2019-20 Goals Breakdown v Average League One Striker

It will come as absolutely no surprise that he ranks much higher than average for headed goals – in fact, of the 76 players in the top divisions on 10+ goals this season, he’s one of just three* to bag half or more with his noggin. It’s easy to say any striker should be able to score that way at will, but evidently it’s not that straightforward. Arguably an underappreciated attribute, there’s no situation where it’s not a highly viable route to goal for us – especially when the guy you’re aiming for takes third most headed shots in the Football League. Of course, it really comes into its own from set-pieces, and Bayo, as well as registering 40% of his goals from such situations – more than twice the average for a striker in the division and another mark of his aerial prowess – is an asset for the carnage he causes in the box alone.

*along with Lucas Jutkiewicz (Birmingham) and Matt Smith (Millwall)

When we talk about set-piece specialists, we mean whoever’s standing over the ball about to whip it in, right? (Hi JJ.) But what about specialists once the ball has been whipped in? With Bayo in there sparking his aforementioned carnage, we’ve always got a chance. Goals aside, he’s had 37 of his 68 shots and provided four of his five assists from set-plays – the box is, in his own words, his office. And not just the opposition’s box either; the sight of one of his rocket-propelled headers away from danger has become more familar than either centre-back clearing in the same, emphatic fashion.

As for the shot data, it shows us that, as is fairly obvious and penalties included, Bayo sees the highest quality chances of any Wycombe player. Take spot-kicks out of the equation and he’s neck-and-neck with Fred, posting a NPxG (non-penalty expected goals) of 0.35 per 90 and 0.14 per shot. In simpler terms, you’d predict him to score once around every 270 minutes – we’ve already seen that he’s exceeding that, notching every 199 – and with every seventh shot, which he’s also bettering (he averages 5.7 shots per goal, to be precise). With a shot accuracy of 42.65%, he’s found the target with a higher proportion of his efforts than everyone in the squad with ten or more except Kashket, Matt Bloomfield and Fred – and it’s worth mentioning that compared to his 68, those three, due to reduced game-time and position, have posted a comparitively low 30, 17 and 23 respectively.

Wycombe Forwards 2019-20 by NPxG/90

Wycombe xG 2019-20
Data from Opta, Parker excluded as sample size not big enough – I broke my 900 minutes rule for Fred!

Ordinarily with two strikers effectively sharing a spot in the side, you’d compare them across the board, but Samuel – given his contrasting role as channel-runner and relentless presser first, goal-scorer second, and his, well, normal size – is really the yin to the Beast’s yang and stacks up even less equally against him than many in the same position, so this isn’t a case of ‘one is better than the other’. We know that Samuel’s not a natural finisher – the numbers bear that out – but he doesn’t need to be because of his role. Even so, he misses big chances half as often as Bayo and slightly less frequently than even Kashket.

Moving on, we can see that Bayo’s overall chance quality is around 1.5 greater than Samuel’s, while the latter is also underperforming his xG – again, not a natural finisher and that’s fine. We can tell without xG that the big man is the superior finisher, but with it we can better gauge how superior. For this, it helps to bring in another element of granularity: xGOT (that’s expected goals on target, not expected Game of Thrones). While xG quantifies the quality of a player or team’s chances, xGOT gives an idea of how well they execute those chances (see here for the detailed explanation from Opta). You’d probably say that Bayo, Fred and Kashket are our best finishers anyway, but here we have a means of presenting that in actual numerical terms.

Wycombe Forwards 2019/20 by xGOT

Wycombe Forwards 2019-20 by xGOT
Data from Opta

For a quick case study, cast your mind back to last April’s vital victory at Southend. Bayo’s second goal that day – that looping header which hung so high that, if you were far enough back in the away end, it briefly disappeared from view – would receive a reasonably high xGOT value due to the relative difficulty of the chance and the fact that he directs it into just about the most difficult-to-reach portion of the net. That’s no easy skill to master.

Comparable goals this season would probably be his openers at Fleetwood – despite finding himself tightly marked, he gets enough power and aim on his header into the ground that it zips away from ‘keeper Matt Gilks who’s at full stretch – and against Bristol Rovers – he’s off balance and facing away from goal with a defender closing down, but he laser-guides it into the bottom left-hand corner.

Bayo’s high output on both xG and xGOT point to excellent positioning and clinical finishing* – you know, two of the most desirable qualities in the person on whom you’re relying for goals. Everything outlined here rather debunks the myth that we desperately needed to sign a striker in January . Our talisman has proven that he continues to serve as exactly that as we find ourselves in uncharted territory: sustaining – if only just – a push for promotion to a division he’s never set foot in. Some fans decry a perceived lack of plan B if pumping it long doesn’t bear fruit – but as I’ve touched upon, it’s incredibly rare that he’s neutralised to the point of having no effect. When all is said and done, the abundance of pros he brings to the table overwhelmingly outweight any negligible cons.

*For a super-sophisticated look at this and more, Oli Walker‘s Statsbomb feature on Bayo from October is a must-read

* * *

In all likelihood, as much as we might like to convince ourselves otherwise, we won’t be watching football from the stands again for a long time. It follows that, unfathomable though it feels, we may well have seen the last of Adebayo Akinfenwa in a Wycombe Wanderers shirt, in person at least. I’m sure I speak for us all when I say I hope we haven’t, but if we have then I think there are only three words left to say – to be honest, three words approrprate regardless of circumstance: thank you, legend.

Photo: Ben Prior
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