Adebayo Akinfenwa Prepares for his Last Dance
For narrative fans, it would have been the perfect ending: Adebayo Akinfenwa scoring his first ever Championship goal with his last ever Championship touch, propelling Wycombe Wanderers to safety before riding off into the sunset… and maybe a WWE career.
As it was, the real sliding doors moment came later. Kieffer Moore’s 77th-minute strike for Cardiff in Wycombe’s third to last game of the season left Gareth Ainsworth’s spirited underdogs needing a bookie-alarming goal swing to survive. Funnily enough, they didn’t beat Middlesbrough 12-0 on the final day, and Akinfenwa’s landmark goal – a 93rd-minute winner from the penalty spot against Bristol City – ultimately counted for nothing.
Or did it?
Gareth Ainsworth and Wycombe would certainly beg to differ. Akinfenwa “offers so much on and off the pitch,” said Ainsworth upon last month’s announcement of a new deal for the self-styled Beast, Wycombe’s all-time leading EFL scorer. Akinfenwa himself has labelled 2021-22 as his “last dance” – it will be his 21st and final season in the professional game – and it might not have happened had the Chairboys stayed in the Championship, an unforgiving league which can take its toll on those much younger than a 38-year-old coming off the back of knee surgery.
Now 39, Akinfenwa is the oldest striker in England’s top four divisions. The only other 38-year-olds to make an appearance in the Premier League or EFL last season were Luke Varney of League One Burton Albion and Jon Stead of League Two Harrogate Town, who are eight and ten months younger than Akinfenwa respectively (Stead has now retired). But, as alluded to by Ainsworth, Wycombe haven’t kept hold of one of the game’s great characters solely for what he brings to the club as a person – even though you could make a compelling case for such a move, given his immense influence in the dressing room and the worldwide audience he draws – they’ve kept hold of him because he remains an immensely influential player on top of that.
As Wycombe were ultimately relegated from the Championship by a solitary point, Akinfenwa posed their biggest goal threat over the course of the season, posting an expected goals figure of 0.31 per 90, meaning he ranked just inside the top 40 players in the division to play 900 minutes or more. That’s almost on a par with 19-year-old Watford prodigy João Pedro and a touch above Derby’s Colin Kazim-Richards, a veteran of over 100 Championship games. Not bad for a player who’s been dismissed as a gimmick throughout his career, including by some Wycombe supporters upon his arrival in 2016. For expected goals and expected assists combined, he ranked a respectable 48th with 0.4 per 90 – as with xG, the highest output of any Wycombe player.
Ok, so they’re not earth-shattering numbers, but Akinfenwa adjusted to one of the strongest leagues in the world better than many would have envisaged. Wycombe didn’t need earth-shattering anyway; they just needed enough to make it through their maiden Championship voyage – and, evidently, they very nearly did.
With no pace to lose, an astonishing ability to head the ball with laser-guided precision while barely leaving the ground – thanks partly to the space he’s able to manufacture for himself through his sheer presence – and a Velcro first touch, Akinfenwa has been able to keep going at a relatively high level longer than most, with little to no drop-off. Back in the familiar, more easy-going surroundings of League One – a division in which he’s made 258 (41%) of his 629 league appearances in England – he ought to return to maximum effectiveness.
Two years ago – when Wycombe recorded the highest league finish in their 144-year history, finishing third in League One and going up via the play-offs– Akinfenwa notched ten goals to finish as the Chairboys’ top scorer for the third time since Ainsworth heeded his call to “hit me up on the WhatsApp” and brought him to Adams Park (he also shared the prize with Olympic corner-scoring left-back Joe Jacobson in 2018-19). Covid cut the regular season short after 34 games, but had he carried on scoring at a rate of a goal every 199 minutes, he’d have finished with 13, only three fewer than his previous third tier best. As a bit-part player – he averaged 62 minutes per game in 2019-20, and a touch under that if you include the play-offs – that’s more than a solid return.
Two of those ten goals were penalties, but five of the other eight came from his usual weapon of choice: his head. This is a player who, in the last two seasons, has contested 884 aerial duels, winning 457 – which averages out at seven aerials won from 13.6 contested per game. In one extraordinary instance last season – a 2-1 win away to Birmingham City – Akinfenwa challenged for 37 aerials – and won 21.
For an attacking player to regularly win 50% of their aerial duels is mightily impressive. Certainly when going up for a header from a long ball, they’re at a natural disadvantage, having to jump off their back foot (or, in Akinfenwa’s case, hardly jump at all) while the defender can get the run on them. Akinfenwa is an undeniable aerial powerhouse, and how Wycombe continue to benefit from his unique skill set for one more season as they undergo a stylistic evolution will be well worth keeping an eye on.
Ainsworth has become synonymous with functional, quite brutally direct football – for the past two seasons, Wycombe have averaged the fewest passes per sequence in their division and produced the fewest moves of ten or more passes, completing just 28 across 2019-20 and 2020-21 combined – but last season’s run-in saw a marked shift, with their long-serving manager, who’s about to enter his ninth year in charge, switching to three at the back and adopting a still high-tempo yet more possession-based approach.
For Wycombe, the days of lumping it forward to the big man are over – but the days of the big man himself are not. And while marquee signing Sam Vokes will be expected to lead the line in the Chairboys’ push to bounce straight back up to the second tier, Akinfenwa won’t serve simply as super sub (although he would set the standard in that category by some distance).
‘Hoofball’ may be a thing of the past, but Wycombe will place a lot of emphasis on crossing – which means plenty of opportunities for Akinfenwa to use his iconic skull. Only eight players, all of whom played considerably more minutes than him, had more headed shots in the Championship last season; only one, Ivan Toney, registered more in League One in 2019-20. Go back to 2018-19, the last season in which Akinfenwa played more than 2,000 minutes, and no one could hold a candle to him as he accounted for more than 2% of the division’s headed shots with 53.
Equally, though, Akinfenwa is a reliable provider, averaging 6.8 assists a season in his time at Wycombe. In League One in 2019-20, no striker created more chances than his 41 at a rate of 1.85 per 90, while five assists put him in the 95th percentile when including players in all positions. Considering he looks set to burn out rather than fade away, he should still be as creative at his more natural level as ever. He certainly looked sharp in last week’s 1-0 friendly win over Leicester, where he bothered a backline including FA Cup final starters Wesley Fofana and Çağlar Söyüncü.
Wycombe kick off their 2021-22 campaign with the visit of Accrington Stanley on Saturday. It will be 17 years to the day since Akinfenwa made his third tier debut – for Torquay United – and, with the aforementioned Vokes likely to be lacking in match fitness, he could well take the first steps of his “last dance” there and then. It takes two to tango, and in each of the last two instances for Wycombe, it’s taken Bayo to go up. There may be something of a changing of the guard taking place in South Bucks, but the big man has got another big shift in him before he leaves the
sentry penalty box for good.
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