Five games into the season and both Manchester clubs have set off like a train, leaving everyone else stuck in the station and Arsenal’s Premier League title challenge already derailed. As Joey Barton tries desperately to stay on the right tracks and Fernando Torres struggles to get up to speed, another of last season’s strugglers, Gabriel Agbonlahor, has shaken off last year’s rustiness, determined to embark on a happier journey with a baggage-laden Aston Villa.

The striker, capped three times by England, managed only five goals in all competitions last season, as a series of injuries took their toll. Add in the tumultuous off-pitch action at Villa Park, where Martin O’Neill’s resignation five days before the new season precipitated the ill-fated reign of Gerard Houllier and a relegation battle, and it is hardly surprising that Agbonlahor failed to hit double figures for the first time since 2006/07, his breakthrough season.

Indeed, Agbonlahor recently said that had Houllier stayed as manager, he may have considered leaving the club – a huge emotional wrench for the Erdington-born lifelong fan. In some ways, many increasingly pessimistic fans would not have been surprised to see him follow fellow leading lights Ashley Young and Stewart Downing out of the door to a richer club, a route paved by Gareth Barry and James Milner in pursuit of the Champions League football Villa patently cannot now afford to chase.

However, a key player in all that was good about O’Neill’s vibrant Villa side, one who was often underrated, he has become more crucial than ever. And with his strong emotional ties likely to keep him at the club for the best years of his career, he has set about leading a bruised side to an unbeaten start in the Premier League. With three goals bagged already, including a scorching solo effort against Blackburn Rovers, Agbonlahor is comfortably outshining both club-record goal-getter Darren Bent and summer signing Charles N’Zogbia with his all-round forward play, in particular taking on much of the creative burden lost through Young and Downing’s departures as the French winger adapts to new surroundings.

Villa Park may still be under a cloud, with poor attendances and fans’ fears over manager Alex McLeish’s style of football yet to be allayed, but if the club’s longest-serving player continues in this vein, he could challenge for the chance to figure in the England set-up just in time for the push for Euro 2012.

With most of the national team settled and a clear first eleven in mind, the key vacancies in Fabio Capello’s squad are for the wing and forward roles. In this case, it is extremely useful that Agbonlahor can do both, and his versatility in being able to play anywhere across the front line – from lone target man (he is surprisingly adept in the air despite being only 5’ 11”) to second striker, right winger to left midfield, in a disciplined formation or a fluid front three – could be a useful addition, bringing much-needed pace and variety to and occasionally plodding attack.

The 24-year-old may lack a natural finisher’s touch in the manner of Villa team-mate Bent or Jermain Defoe, but such is his all-round contribution, including his often-overlooked crossing ability and tactical flexibility, that when the starlet is on form and scoring he argues a strong case for inclusion in the party to travel to Poland and the Ukraine.

Agbonlahor was among a handful of players, alongside Arsenal’s Theo Walcott and Ashley Young, who could have headed to last summer’s World Cup instead of the likes of Shaun Wright-Phillips, Michael Carrick and Aaron Lennon. The case for the Villa man centres around his ability to provide verve, intelligence and adaptability, qualities that proved to be desperately needed in South Africa. However, despite strong performances for England – an assist for Wayne Rooney against Belarus, a wrongly disallowed goal on his debut against Germany – Agbonlahor’s usual mid-season goal-drought saw him drop out of England contention, and despite a late rally in form, Capello’s unwillingness to experiment in the pre-tournament friendlies saw him unable to fight his way back in. The attacking all-rounder may have scored more goals than ever before – including a first Villa winner at Old Trafford for 30 years – but just as the Midlands giants slumped to sixth and controversially lost out in two Wembley trips, so Agbonlahor narrowly failed to make the cut.

Since last summer, the field has become far more crowded: in place of the retired Emile Heskey and out-of-favour Peter Crouch, other good players such as Bobby Zamora, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge, are in contention for the spare striker slot behind Rooney, Andy Carroll and Bent, with Defoe also regaining form. Aaron Lennon, Adam Johnson and maybe Milner, if he is not included in the central midfield cohort, will fight it out for a place on the wing (with Young, Downing and Walcott top picks), but a strong season for a Villa side that could finish anywhere between 7th and 17th might bring Agbonlahor significant reward.

The forward’s best chance could again come from his versatility, which may bag him the bonus 23rd place in the squad as a striker-cum-winger, perhaps providing extra cover should a key player such as Rooney carry an injury into the tournament. Agbonlahor has, of course, linked up excellently with squad members such as Milner, Downing and Young, and a burgeoning double-act with Bent could significantly aid both strikers’ causes.

At the very least, there could be an exciting consolation, as the Aston Villa man may be given an opportunity in the 2012 British Olympics squad as an overage player. The thought of Agbonlahor and Welshman Gareth Bale running at a defence would surely give many defenders palpitations, and a home crowd roaring on a unique coming together could assuage any disappointment in missing out on the Euros.

To do this, Agbonlahor must maintain his excellent form, even if Villa, like last year, suffer a season to forget. Having stopped and stalled at the lights last season, but currently going like a juggernaut, he could find himself on an express train to Poland and Ukraine come next June.