Manchester City and Aston Villa have signed prolific strikers and their contrasting approaches will be fascinating to watch
Darren Bent and Edin Dzeko have much in common. Quite apart from the enormous transfer fees that they have just commanded, the two strikers have outstanding goals-per-game ratios, can score with both feet as well as their heads and possess superb positional sense. Yet when Aston Villa's Bent and Manchester City's Dzeko meet in the Midlands this evening, one will be chasing glory and the other hoping to avoid relegation. There are several reasons why this should be so and the difference between price and value ranks foremost among them.
The pair's broadly similar transfer fees cannot disguise a widely held view that title-challenging City have captured an infinitely more valuable player. While few question the Bosnian forward's £27m move from Wolfsburg, Villa's willingness to pay Sunderland £24m for Bent has sparked a debate.
This is partly down to outward appearances. Ignoring for a moment his 66 goals in 111 Bundesliga games, Dzeko simply looks more expensive than Bent. Blessed with greater skill and technical aptitude and a stronger left foot, he is tall, elegant and cerebral.
Not even Bent's most ardent admirers would describe Villa's record signing in such terms but his 32 league goals in 58 Sunderland appearances show that few can rival him when it comes to effectiveness. While Bent still gets caught offside far too frequently and does not like tracking back, his retention and distribution of the ball is much improved. Increasingly adept at adjusting his body shape to create more favourable shooting angles, this exceptionally pacy forward excels when operating on the shoulder of the last defender and polishing off through balls and crosses.
Noting that Bent's best games for Sunderland had come when he was playing off Kenwyne Jones, who is now at Stoke City, and receiving incisive service from wide, Gérard Houllier predicted that Bent would thrive alongside Villa's Emile Heskey. Bent failed to adapt to Sunderland's recent attempts to play him in a front three with Asamoah Gyan and Danny Welbeck – although it did not help that Bent and Gyan were rarely paired together in training – but he should gobble up inviting deliveries from Stewart Downing and co.
Like Bent, Dzeko suits a 4-4-2 formation but he also relished Wolfsburg's 2009 Bundesliga-winning diamond pattern. If he did not overly enjoy operating as a lone forward in the 4-2-3-1 system that was introduced by Steve McClaren last summer, he still scored 10 times in 17 league appearances this season. The 24-year-old began his career as a midfielder with FK Zeljeznicar – where, surprisingly in light of his current reputation, he was regarded as technically poor. But his statistics suggest he now possesses a tactical adaptability and goal-creating capacity that Bent does not have.
Although McClaren believes that the more three-dimensional Dzeko could operate as a lone striker, supported by two wide men – a gameplan that is often deployed by Roberto Mancini at City – he suggests that it may not show him off to best advantage. The Wolfsburg manager said: "Dzeko's a good boy and a very good, strong and clever all-round footballer but he'll be really great, really potent, alongside Carlos Tevez. He'll need to work harder at City, though."
If that raises the spectre of Dzeko being disinclined to adjust to the fast and physically demanding intensity of Premier League life, and maybe even proving to be an expensively imported flop to rival Andriy Shevchenko (who has long been his hero), Mateja Kezman and Jon Dahl Tomasson, reassurance for Mancini comes from a perhaps unexpected corner.
Houllier, Villa's manager, said: "Dzeko is good. I saw him play in Paris two or three seasons ago and I said to the Parisien people, 'Buy him.' He scores goals, make goals. He's strong and very skilful. It's a really good signing for City." Not that Houllier believes he has acquired second-best. "Dzeko is more of a holding player," he said. "Darren is more mobile, more incisive with his runs."
Bent's scoring record is so good that his omission from England's past two World Cup squads is a mystery. Recently, however, he has withdrawn from international gatherings, citing hamstring strains which Fabio Capello's staff privately suspect may reflect a mental fragility and a vulnerability to pressure.
Dzeko has no doubts that he belongs at football's top table – "I have come to Manchester City to finish first," he said. Sunderland's staff describe Bent as a high-maintenance personality, constantly in need of reassurance and an arm round the shoulder. Seemingly addicted to Twitter and tattoos – he has a penchant for Biblical body art – the feeling is that an albeit likeable individual seems to be overly self-absorbed.
No one would describe Dzeko as needy or introspective. Fluent in four languages, the Bosnian Muslim, who is a Unicef ambassador, was six when war broke out in the Balkans. It left him sharing a tiny flat with 15 relatives, rarely having enough to eat and at risk of being shot at or blown up by a landmine.
Bent may have attended Oliver Cromwell's old school, but growing up in peaceful Huntingdon was never going to imbue him with remotely similar mental toughness. Who can forget the striker's thin-skinned reaction when, as a Tottenham player, he missed a simple chance that his then manager, Harry Redknapp, famously said his wife would have converted.
"Deep down, Steve Bruce will be happy with his £24m," Redknapp said. "But if Bent goes to Villa and scores goals, they've got a good deal too. Bent's a good player, he has good movement and he can finish." Then he paused. "Dzeko looks cheap at £27m, though. I spoke to Steve McClaren last week and he said he's absolutely different class."