BENIK Afobe feels he can be one of the best strikers in the Championship this season.
If that sounds like over-confidence, consider that the centre-forward has three times commanded fees of over £10million for his signature and contributed six goals to help underdogs Bournemouth stay in the Premier League in 2016-17.
Afobe has major pedigree, even if he hasn’t always shown it consistently. He scored 19 goals for MK Dons in League One on loan from Arsenal in the first half of 2014-15 before transferring to Wolves – who were managed by Kenny Jackett – and scoring on his debut for them in the Championship.
Twelve more goals followed as Wolves finishes seventh in the second tier.
Afobe had scored 10 the next season before Bournemouth paid £10million to sign him in January. He scored on his second appearance for them in the Premier League, a 3-0 win over Norwich City.
It meant after that game Afobe had bagged 33 league goals since the start of 2014-15, fewer only than Sergio Aguero and Daryl Murphy in the top four tiers in that time, and the same as Harry Kane, Odion Ighalo and Andre Gray.
This was in the BBC’s match report, showing how highly rated he was. ‘Norwich were reportedly among the clubs interested in signing Afobe in this transfer window, and they saw first-hand at Dean Court that the 22-year-old has the strength, pace and finishing prowess to make an impact in the top flight.
‘The former Arsenal forward, who had scored nine Championship goals already this season, regularly held off Norwich’s centre-half pairing of Sebastien Bassong and Ryan Bennett, laying off the ball to bring team-mates into the game.
‘He outpaced the Canaries back four on his way to being clattered by [Declan] Rudd in the first half, before picking the perfect place in the six-yard box to collect his first Premier League goal in the second.’
Afobe then scored two goals in his next two games against Sunderland and Crystal Palace.
You get the picture. There are goals in Afobe, who despite making 16 moves in his career – loan and permanent, including two of the former to the Lions – is still only 28.
Afobe scored six goals in 31 Premier League appearances in 2016-17 but his level dipped the campaign after that and he went back to Wolves on loan in January 2018.
Still, he showed his goal-scoring ability in the Championship with six to help Wolves win the title under now Tottenham boss Nuno Espirito Santo.
Afobe was at his most lethal from January 2015 to May 2018 in that Wolves-Bournemouth-Wolves part of his career.
His current boss Gary Rowett then signed him for Stoke but he didn’t hit those heights, nor did he on loan at Bristol City in 2019-20.
Afobe spent last season on loan with Trabzonspor in Turkey, scoring five times in 28 games.
But he feels there should be context around those numbers.
“I was away in Turkey for a year. I scored three goals in the first five games but the manager got sacked. That was tough for me mentally,” Afobe said.
“When you look at the statistics, people don’t realise, it says I played 28 games and scored five goals. But if you add up the minutes from those 28 games it was equivalent to 11 full games.
“I know that I scored five goals in 11 90 minutes which is not a bad return for a team that didn’t really score many goals and wasn’t a scoring team. It was 1-0 here and there.
“I was coming on in the 87th minute, 88th minute for a lot of the season. That means you’ve got no fluidity in your play. You’ve got no run of games, no chance to build up your sharpness.”
Afobe returned to England in the summer before making a loan move to Millwall from Stoke.
He scored two goals in Millwall’s last pre-season friendly against Ipswich, and has two goals in five games this season.
Rowett has said the Lions need to provide the right conditions for Afobe to show his scoring prowess.
Afobe explained how one of Rowett’s staff members, technical coach Joe Carnall, works to get the best out of him.
“I work with Joe to get feedback. Joe has known me since I was at Stoke. He’s pulled me aside and said, ‘Benik, when you are reacting sharply and taking things quickly, moving quickly, you’re a threat and one of the best in the league’,” Afobe said.
“I’m not the finished article. I’m 28 and have played at the highest level but sometimes you just need to be reminded, when I’m dangerous and the good stuff that I do. It’s just about improving my game.
“But I’m enjoying my football, first and foremost, and winning games every week is the plan.”
Afobe knew Rowett and Carnall offered him the best chance of getting back to those career numbers he posted at Wolves and Bournemouth.
He said: “I was 100 per cent [convinced about joining Millwall]. I had other interest but, to be honest with you, when I spoke to the manager I said, ‘this is the club, I’m not going to take any other club’.
“I give credit to Stoke, sometimes deals don’t happen until the end of transfer windows but Stoke were fair to me.
“I spoke to Gary, I saw the way his team plays and I felt like it worked for both parties. I think I’m something they hadn’t got with the way I play. I also think that with the way I play and the players that we’ve got is good for me as well.
“So it’s a good fit and hopefully come May we’ll still be saying it’s a good fit after a really good season.”
Afobe believes the Lions are capable of mixing it up this season. “We’ve looked at different ways of playing and I would classify us as having a bit of everything. We’re good on the ball but we can go direct.
“Sometimes we’re more dangerous when we haven’t got the ball. You see teams with less than 50 per cent possession but they’re 2-0 up. At the end of the day it’s about scoring goals and winning games.
“We’ll do our best with whatever tactics the manager gives us.”
Meanwhile, Afobe is clear in what he wants. “I only got five goals last year but I know if I get a run of games I can be the best striker in the league.
“But, for me, it’s not about just being the best striker in the league, it’s about getting back to the best me. Whether that is being in the gym, supporting my team-mates from the bench, whether it’s me scoring a hat-trick, or encouraging someone because we’ve lost or we’ve had a poor game – I’m aiming for the best version of me.”
Image: Millwall FC