When fit Manny Oyeleke has proved his worth for the Valiants but James Russell says Vale need to have an alternative if he is unavailable.
James Russell writes…
Manny Oyeleke’s arrival in Burslem was relatively low-key, with the former Brentford man signing a one-year contract after turning down a new deal at Aldershot.
However, despite very little fanfare, the 25-year-old has quickly become a fan-favourite, and his presence in the middle of the park has helped the club pick up some crucial points this season. Sadly, Oyeleke is injury-prone and he’s spent a number of weeks on the sidelines this campaign, with both Neil Aspin and John Askey struggling to find a ready-made replacement for the athletic midfielder.
There are several areas which will need addressing this summer, but another dynamic, ball-winning lynchpin should be at the top of the list when the transfer window swings open.
Oyeleke immediately impressed with his battling performances in the centre of the park, and although he’s remained modest throughout, he’s been one of the few success stories of the 2018-19 campaign. His fitness issues began in pre-season with calf and knee injuries hampering his progress throughout July. Vale were defeated in just one of Oyeleke’s first seven games at the club, but they failed to pick up a single point during his enforced absence at the end of August.
The former Exeter man was also on the sidelines for the club’s embarrassing 6-2 defeat to Lincoln in mid-October, and his return to the XI coincided with a four-match unbeaten streak at the beginning of December.
Oyeleke is far from perfect, and he is the first to admit that he is still learning and developing his style of play, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the team looks far more balanced with him in the side. Former boss Neil Aspin admitted it was tough to replace the midfielder, and the club must begin to draw up a list of targets in order to avoid similar selection dilemmas next season.
He was absent throughout February and didn’t feature at all during the club’s three-match losing streak. This unwanted sequence of results has dragged Askey’s men closer to the bottom two, and they have important games against some of their relegation rivals on the horizon. They are now 4/1 in the latest odds to drop into the National League, and Oyeleke’s return in recent games has clearly helped in the club’s recent upturn of results.
Askey admitted that he is short of options in central areas, and he’s tended to deploy veteran defender Anthony Kay in this position. Luke Joyce has happily sat alongside the former MK Dons man, but whilst he’s kept things ticking over, Kay isn’t as quick as Oyeleke, and he doesn’t necessarily possess the ability or wherewithal to stride forward at regular intervals.
It’s been a poor season so far, and Port Vale will need to undergo a serious rebuild in the summer. A combative central midfielder should be prioritised, as this will add extra depth to the squad ahead of the 2019-2020 campaign. The club are actually fairly well-stocked in wide areas, and there are a number of defensive options available to Askey, but with no natural replacement for Oyeleke, Vale must ensure they invest in this area during the summer.