An ode to Adebayo Akinfenwa
If you’re a fan of a lower league club in England, you know of Adebayo Akinfenwa. If you’re a fan of any club in England, you probably know of Adebayo Akinfenwa. If you don’t know who Adebayo Akinfenwa is but are the parent of a video-gaming soccer fan, ask them. They’ll definitely know of Adebayo Akinfenwa.
Larger than life in personality and almost-literally in body frame, it’s time to pay homage to a genuine legend of the English lower leagues. A celebrity in his own right, in part due to infamously being the strongest player in the FIFA video game series, Akinfenwa boasts over a million Instagram followers and owns a burgeoning YouTube channel. But, while much of Akinfewa's notoriety is about notoriety and social media age fame, he also happens to still be playing the game at the ripe old age of 37. And that's because, on the pitch, he’s still damned effective.
Currently with Wycombe Wanderers in League One, the big strike continues to lead the line , with the unfancied Chairboys so far defying the odds to sit in second place. But how ‘Bayo’ came to be a Wycombe player in the first place is itself a story worth telling.
Question marks had been lingering over his future at AFC Wimbledon for weeks at the end of the 2015-16 season and it was still unclear as the club headed into the League Two play-off final. The game ended with Akinfenwa wrestling the ball from (brave) teammate Callum Kennedy to take an injury-time penalty that would make the scoreline 2-0 to AFC Wimbledon and it soon transpired that ‘Bayo’ already knew this would be his last act in an AFC Wimbledon shirt. In the post-match TV interview, the icon revealed live to the nation that he was now technically unemployed and invited any interested managers to “hit him up on WhatsApp!”
Wycombe manager Gareth Ainsworth apparently did just that and, just over three years on, the team now sit in the promotion places of League One, after achieving promotion from League Two just a couple of seasons prior.
With such an unconventional shape in a footballing sense, Akinfenwa’s regularly found himself as the target of opposition fans’ attentions. There’s no getting around the fact; Akinfenwa just doesn’t look like a football player, even less so in the ultra-lean modern age. Now, that’s not to say he isn’t an athlete, it’s just he’s the type of athlete you’d more likely expect to find curling dumbbells in the gym than polishing his finishing skills on the grass.
Throughout his career he’s been able to shut the dissenters up more often than not though. The big man’s accrued 195 league goals in over 600 league appearances at the time of writing and still shows no sign of slowing down, with 200 league goals a likely milestone if he continues the form he’s shown this season.
His form this campaign has seen him play the sixth-most minutes in the Wycombe squad so far, so what is he contributing that makes him continue to be such a reliable presence at this late stage of his career? Clearly Akinfenwa has a unique frame in a footballing context, with that also comes with a unique footballing skillset. He’s what you might call a ‘spike’ player: weak in some areas of the game, extremely strong in others. What he lacks in mobility, he makes up for with an ability to pin defenders and hold them at arm’s length, winning his aerial duels almost always by out-muscling and out-manoeuvring his opponent rather than with his obviously non-existent hops.
Out of all strikers in League One, Akinfenwa averages both the most Aerial Wins per 90 minutes and the most overall. That's half down to Akinfenwa’s aerial ability, and half Wycombe’s regular attempts to go long from the back – the average pass length from the goalkeeper is longer than the rest of the league. When you know you have the strongest player in the FIFA video game series to hit in the final third, why wouldn’t you?
As well as the colossal number of Aerial Wins he’s able to generate, there’s two other data points that standout far above the rest: the amount of Touches in the Box he gets and his Shot Touch % (the amount of shots taken as a proportion of his total touches).
The two are arguably closely linked as well. Though he isn’t just a target man, Akinfenwa still does a really effective job in the role as the focal point for attacks. If a counter attack down the wings isn’t on for Wycombe, he’ll regularly get touches on the ball in the final third and in and around the penalty area, playing smart lay offs and retaining possession for the Chairboys, and he’s also a useful outlet for the team to hang balls up to in the far post area if an obvious ground pass isn’t on.
Which brings us onto his creative prowess. Diminutive Spanish playmaker he is not, but Bayo’s ability to lay on passes to teammates either to keep the attack moving or to create chances shows up in the data. From deep, he’s regularly able to move the play forward either by a flick-on header or from receiving to feet and advancing the play into more dangerous areas: Akinfenwa has played 15 passes into the opposition penalty area this season, a league-high compared to his fellow League One forwards.
His link-play is part of the reason why he’s a regular but not a ruthless goalscorer these days – he’s not selfish enough to dominate the shot count for his side. Rather than getting his head down and going for goal when on the ball, he looks to play knock downs or tee others up, setting up 18 shots for his teammates so far this season (third highest amongst League One forwards) and assisting 1.59 xG so far this season (fifth highest amongst League One forwards).
Being a striker though, he’s still required to get goals and you don’t get close to 200 career league goals if you don’t know what positions to be taking up. His shot map reflects well on what an eighteen-year career as a forward can teach you: get between the posts and don’t waste a shot. This is how it’s done, kids.
What experience has also seemingly taught Akinfenwa is that energy must be conserved for the aerial battles and physical tussles he gets himself into. It’s fair to say that manager Gareth Ainsworth isn’t picking him for his work rate in harrying the opposition defenders. If the man hasn't trademarked the phrase "Press Barbells, Not Defenders" yet, he should get on it right away. It would do a brisk t-shirt and coffee mug business.
While he's still up for doing rounds with League One centre halves every week and so far coming out on top, his future beyond this season remains to be seen. His contract expires at the end of the season. Whether he stays with Wycombe, opens his WhatsApp up to offers once again, or hangs his boots and XXL shirt up, there’s no doubt that Adebayo Akinfenwa has earned his place amongst the EFL’s most iconic forwards of all time. It’s time to pay respect to the big man.