FOOTBALL LEAGUE FOCUS: How Akpom is thriving in a deeper role for Boro

FOOTBALL LEAGUE FOCUS: How Chuba Akpom is thriving in a deeper role for Middlesbrough, Bradford goalkeeper escapes red card for handball howler and Rob Edwards shows folly of Watford sacking

  • Akpom has dropped deep to impact play under Middlesbrough boss Carrick
  • Bradford keeper handled ball outside of his penalty area due to rugby markings
  • Luton well set for a play-off finish under Edwards, despite a shoestring budge 

So go on, who had Chuba Akpom as their tip for Championship top scorer and perhaps player of the season? If you said you did, you’re lying.

A search of the bookmakers reveals the Nigerian forward was 100-1 to win the Golden Boot but here we are, in mid-March, with Akpom romping home with 22 goals in 29 appearances.

That’s five clear of next-best Viktor Gyokeres of Coventry – with an average of 105 minutes per goal and his haul coming from just 58 shots.

His goals, coupled with some inspired management from Michael Carrick and flourishing stars across the pitch, has got Middlesbrough to within touching distance of the top two.

So if you feel you missed the boat with Akpom at 100-1, why not take a punt on Boro to pip Sheffield United to the top two? With 30 points to play for and just four points separating them, would you really bet against in-form Boro to make a late charge?

Middlesbrough forward Chuba Akpom has dropped deep to impact play under Michael Carrick

Akpom played 97 per cent of minutes at PAOK in the centre-forward role but that has decreased to 48 per cent this term

His touch map from the 3-1 win at Swansea shows he is much more than a traditional striker

The graphic shows his expected goals (xG) of 0.57 per game – the best in the Championship

Anyway, back to Akpom. A graduate of Arsenal’s Hale End academy, the forward never lived up to his potential in north London. Across loans with Brentford, Coventry, Nottingham Forest, Hull, Brighton and Sint-Truiden in Belgium, he managed just 13 goals in 85 games.

It wasn’t until his stint in Greece that the striker started to feel at home. Playing in Thessaloniki with PAOK, Akpom matured as a player and won a Super League and Greek Cup double.

Even this season, though, Akpom was in football purgatory, unfancied under then-Boro boss Chris Wilder. Noting all that, his rise in the last six months has been incredible.

Looking at his touch map from Boro’s 3-1 win at Swansea on Saturday – in which Akpom scored a penalty – it is clear he is much more than a traditional striker.

He dropped deep to impact play, as he has all season under Carrick. Cameron Archer can lead the line, with Akpom playing as No 10 in between Riley McGree and Aaron Ramsey.

Behind that triumvirate is a formidable midfield duo. Ageless Jonny Howson – now 34 and with nearly 700 career appearances under his belt – perfectly complements one of the division’s brightest young stars Hayden Hackney, 20.

Moving a players’ positional tasks deeper would often see their attacking output decrease but Akpom has done the opposite. Not needing to lead the line has taken a weight off his shoulders, allowing him to find pockets of space and help team-mates run past him.

Last season, he played 97 per cent of minutes at PAOK in the centre-forward role but that has decreased to 48 per cent this term, with over half of his time spent in the deeper position.

Using Delphlyx’s data, we can see Akpom’s stats as a comparison with the rest of players in the division. The further out the graph goes, the better he is when compared to other players.

In the graphic above, we can see his expected goals (xG) of 0.57 per game is by far the best in the league. In terms of his passing stats and offensive duels won, he is in the top half in the Championship. Off the ball and creatively, there is work to be done.

Akpom, who is yet to receive an international call-up, faces big competition at Nigeria. Victor Osimhen is Serie A’s top scorer with 19 goals at Napoli while Atalanta’s Ademola Lookman is third-highest in Italy. In France, only two men have more goals than Reims’ Folarin Balogun in Ligue 1. Josh Maja is also on form for Bordeaux and Paul Onuachu is the second-highest scorer in Belgium this season.

It’s also worth noting that Akpom is the leading goal-scorer in England’s top four tiers in 2023 with 10 goals, and recently became the first Middlesbrough player to score 20 or more goals in one season since Fabrizio Ravanelli in 1996-97.

Overall, the numbers are looking good for Akpom. If he continues scoring at his rate of 0.75 goals per game, the Nigerian would be nearing the 30-goal mark which has only been hit three times in Championship history: Aleksandar Mitrovic (43, 2021-22), Ivan Toney (31, 2020-21) and Glenn Murray (30, 2012-13).

Saying this though, there’s only one number that matters. And that’s overturning the four points needed to catch up with Sheffield United.

Goalkeeper left red-raced 

A bizarre moment in League Two this weekend as Bradford City goalkeeper Harry Lewis handled the ball outside of his penalty area due to the pre-existing rugby pitch markings.

There’s a joke to be made about England’s failing rugby union team here but let’s focus instead on the referee.

As Newport players begged him to send Lewis off, it was refreshing to see some common sense in refereeing as the honest mistake was punished with only a yellow card.

Grayson is a hero in India 

It’s two years since Simon Grayson’s fleeting spell at Fleetwood and you’d have to go even further back to his last truly successful stint in English football, when his Leeds side were promoted from League One in 2009-10.

So it’s pleasing to see him idolised somewhere. Grayson has led Bengaluru into the final of the Indian Super League after beating Mumbai City on Sunday.

And judging by the videos of him conducting a section of euphoric fans, it’s a match made in heaven.

Edwards shows Watford folly

Watford receive a lot of stick for their cut-throat policy when it comes to sacking managers but, in a flick through the archives, a lot have been justified.

Slaven Bilic became the 18th permanent boss to be sacked since 2012 at Vicarage Road last week after just 10 wins in 26 games. So that departure was fair.

Luton are well set for a play-off finish under Rob Edwards, despite a shoestring budge

And when Watford bosses looked at the Championship table, they might have wondered, ‘What on earth were we doing sacking Rob Edwards?’

Now at Luton, Edwards’ Hatters have lost fewer matches than every team in the division bar leaders Burnley and are well set for a play-off finish, despite a shoestring budget. They beat second-placed Sheffield United on Saturday.

They make some abhorrent decisions at Watford but sacking Edwards is surely the worst of the lot.

Source: Read Full Article