ENIGMATIC Afonso Alves is a striker crying out for a goal – if only to appease a fidgeting faction anxious to get on with the lynching.
Some have already made their judgement: the Brazilian is a lightweight no-hoper, a latin Lee Dong Gook who freezes in front of goal, a dopple-ganger for Massimo Maccarone who, weighed down by a record transfer pricetag, is quick to tumble under a challenge, who can’t head the ball and who is not up to the hurly-burly of the Premiership. Get shot!
It seems a harsh assessment but that kneejerk view has been gaining currency on Teesside as Boro’s lack of goals has led to growing impatience and frustration.
And there is a superficial case that the critics may have a point. “Alfie” is easily brushed aside and has squandered some golden chances in a demoralising barren run and given his status as club record buy that is not acceptable to many. For that kind of dosh you expect a goal a game. At least.
Recent weeks have done him few favours as time after time incisive passing movements have played him into the box with time and space only to see him collapse under what appears only routine contact from stronger, quicker defenders who were second favourites to even reach the ball. It is not even as if he is looking for a free-kick because so often he does not even appeal.
Against Aston Villa, Everton and Bolton he has been muscled out of good positions in the danger-zone and left trudging dejectedly back upfield as an isolated figure as the ball is hoofed clear and action switches to the other end.
Meanwhile he has also missed some golden chances, the most glaring one the six yard tap in that he spooned wide at Villa Park, a gaffe lovingly replayed in slo-mo by all the highlights shows and cruelly dissected by disbelieving pundits and punters alike. As a striker who arrived with a ÃÂ£12.7m fee to live up to and an awesome YouTube gallery of goals prompting high expectations that must have hurt.
As a result of a string of set-backs his confidence has clearly dipped. Instead of playing on instinct in front of goal – the very deadly asset that Boro shelled out for – he is taking one touch too many when he makes his move in the box thus giving defenders an extra fraction of a second to intervene and the keeper extra time to check his angles and the self-conscious shot when it eventually comes is from a less favourable position.
His free-kicks too have been affected. From an early array of stinging, dipping, curling dead-balls that threatened the keeper every time he has declined to the sad sight of wayward shots screaming high over the bar, more a danger to the taunting “Goal Machine” banner high in the East Stand than the opposition net.
Obviously then he is never going to make it.
But not so fast. Remember fans have a poor track record here for making snap judgements on players who start slowly later blossom: Zenden, Pogatetz, Young and Hoyte to name but just a few. A slow start in a new team, in a new system and at an unaccustomed tempo do not help anyone make an instant impact but when the transfer fee is so high the period of grace is far shorter.
And remember also that Alves has started just 20 games for Boro – a relatively short spell and one broken up by the summer, international breaks, a succession of striking partners and also a midfield in flux just behind him. Plenty of big name players have struggled in their first 20 games: Ronaldo, Juninho, Bergkamp, Henry… no one is saying Alves is any of those players but we don’t know and won’t know until he gets into his stride. We have yet to see the best of him in a settled side that plays to his strengths.
And remember too, most importantly, that he is the best striker on the books – and that is borne out by the stats. Despite the four game run without a goal the Brazilian goal-getter still has a more than respectable goal ratio.
Alves got six goals in seven starts last term with two classy finishes in the 2-2 draw against Manchester United and a hat-trick in the last day 8-1 hammering of Man City.
He has added three more in 13 starts this season – a sizzling free-kick against Stoke, a cracker against Blackburn and a penalty against Man City – and arguably would have had two more had he been taking spot-kicks from the start.
That is a decent record of nine goals in 20 league starts or almost one goal in two games. Even if you throw in his five substitute appearances, nine goals in 25 is not bad.
In contrast, his main rival Mido, the people’s choice to judge by his rapturous reception whenever he appears, has scored just three in 12 league starts – one in four – although the injury-jinxed Egyptian hitman has more than proved his worth as an impact sub with an awesome record of three in seven off the bench.
Tuncay, got eight in 27 league starts last term and has added three in nine this time out for a tally of 11 goals in 36 games, just shy of one in three. He too had a sluggish start and was written off by many before finding his feet and becoming a firm gavourite.
Alves’ early return stacks up well against other recent frontmen too. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink got seven in his first 20 games, Mark Viduka eight and only Yakubu bettered Alves’ start with 11 in 20. So even just looking at the bare numbers Alves is worth his starting place – but there is more to it than that.
Clearly he is not at his best right now, he will know that more than anyone, but to his credit he is continuing to work hard, make good runs, take up the right positions and, despite his blanks, is still ready to have a crack if he sees the target.
And there were signs against Newcastle that he is edging back towards his best, or at least a level of display that presents a genuine threat. In the first half of a tetchy, high-tempo and robust derby game he got little change out of the impressive Sebastien Bassong at the back. Twice he was barged aside, and then a little nudge prevented him getting a contact as he went up for a header.
But after the break he looked sharper, more hungrier and bigger and started to impose himself on the game. He proved the knockers wrong when he actually connected with a header, a diving one at that, to put a Stewie Downing cross just over then he went on a weaving run to cut in from the left and skip past three defenders before putting a 20 yard shot just inches over the bar.
And he was cruelly denied what would have been a galvanising goal when he rifled home a low 15 yard effort after David Wheater nodded a cross only for the flag to go harshly up against Tuncay who wasn’t interfering with play.
But it will come. Alves is a good player and we know from both his cyberspace greatest hits video and the evidence of his spell so far at Boro that he has a fine array of tricks and talents to hurt teams with.
The idea we should sell in January – even “take a hit” on the price – and bring in a less prolific striker like Kevin Davies or Marlon Harewood is ludicrous.
We need him firing on all cylinders if we are to play out the season in the top half and we need to keep the faith. Goal Machine? There’s time yet.
(*This article is a remix of today’s Big Picture column in the Gazette)
DERBY DAY fall-out… in what now seems an annual occurance, Newcastle fans are under the microscope for their party-piece bile directed at Mido and the FA are investigating. Meanwhile their finest legal minds have been at work on the message boards and phone-ins defending the use of paedophilia chants as ‘banter’.
Last year I wrote:
“The sight of phlegm-flecked faces contorted in hate and hurling invective at a stranger was disturbing. It was as crass, stupid, socially backward and morally bankrupt as throwing bananas and making monkey-noises at black players ever was.
“And just as racism was back in the dark ages, it will be defended by the perpetrators as being “just banter”. But this goes far beyond banter – and beyond the pale. It is just about the most offensive thing you can think of and to make it a calculated set-piece within your repertoire plumbs new depths.
“What kind of person thinks smearing people with most horrific crimes against children imaginable passes as ‘just banter’ and anyone who is offended should ‘lighten up’? “
Sadly nothing has changed since then. Neither FA nor United officials, nor campaigning bodies active within the Newcastle crowd like fanzines and supporters groups appear to have challenged this despicable behaviour that brings shame on the club.