Christian Benteke: Can Villa’s Thriller Be Liverpool’s Love?

Photo: PA Images

Photo: Nick Potts/PA Images

Originally published on The Anfield Wrap.

Christian Benteke’s move to Liverpool is all but sealed, with Brendan Rodgers finally landing a player who, by many accounts, he’s coveted for years. After a dreadful season featuring an anemic attack unrecognizable from the Luis Suarez-led unit that once dominated the Premier League, Rodgers has signed a player he believes will get his team back among the goals — and all for a cool £32.5 million.

Much of the discourse surrounding Liverpool’s pursuit of Benteke this summer, particularly among the club’s fans, has concerned how he fits into the style of play implemented by Rodgers. The conversation has revolved around several recurring talking points — such as Benteke’s supposed fondness for crosses into the box, according Tim Sherwood, or whether he’s mobile enough to execute the intense, coordinated pressing game that has produced the most exhilarating and successful football under Rodgers’ watch.

It’s an intriguing debate and not terribly surprising, given how fans and media are inclined to typecast players — particularly those they haven’t watched every week. And the 6-foot-3-inch Benteke certainly looks the part of physically imposing battering ram who wins loads of aerial battles, but won’t tear opposition defenses apart through running the channels and generally dazzling with the ball at his feet.

But it’s also somewhat puzzling considering that, 18 months ago, Benteke spearheaded one of the more impressive high-energy, counterattacking performances seen at Anfield in recent times — the 2-2 draw at Anfield in January 2014.

Villa ran Liverpool ragged that day, buoyed by Brendan Rodgers’ decision to play a flat 4-4-2 for probably one of the only times in his entire top-flight managerial career. Rodgers may have thought his high-flying side, which had just beaten Stoke City in an unforgettable 5-3 win at the Britannia, could afford to get away with such a lineup at home to Villa. (He also was still trying to figure out the best way to fit Suarez and Daniel Sturridge in the same side.) In any case, the move backfired — Villa dominated the first half on the way to a 0-2 lead in the opening 36 minutes, thanks in no small part to their Belgian talisman.

It was a performance that encapsulated what Benteke brings to the table; he played an instrumental role in both Villa goals, but in a markedly different manner for each. For Villa’s first, Benteke receives a pass near the halfway line from Fabian Delph, who had won the ball off Suarez outside the Villa penalty area before delivering an outball up the touchline. Benteke receives the pass and, with Martin Skrtel pressing into the Villa half, delivers a lovely measured ball down the line to Gabby Agbonlahor — who takes on Kolo Toure in the Liverpool penalty area before centering to Andreas Weimann for a tap-in from a yard out.

Benteke also scored Villa’s second in a more familiar fashion, if the narrative around him as a player is to be believed. Leandro Bacuna feeds a direct ball to Agbonlahor’s feet from his own half, and a bit of interplay with Karim El Ahmadi frees up Agbonlahor down the flank for a terrific cross into the area. It curls away from Simon Mignolet and finds Benteke, who heads it in unmarked.

It was all part of one of the more frustrating performances seen from a home side at Anfield in recent years (at least until last season, when there were loads more). There was a ton of broken-up, inconcise build-up play from a Liverpool team lacking numbers in midfield, not to mention plenty of Aly Cissokho being left alone out wide for painfully obvious reasons. John Henry and his wife Linda were in attendance that evening, and one could possibly blame this performance for the Liverpool owner’s reluctance to return to Anfield ever since. (As for me, I had gone five months without a cigarette before the match; I’d fallen off the wagon by halftime.)

But as poor as Liverpool were that day, you can’t diminish a terrific, stifling Aston Villa performance. Villa’s energetic front three of Benteke, Agbonlahor and Weimann propelled a terrific display of counterattacking football, and Benteke’s role in that success was indisputable.

****

While Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa never subscribed to an aggressively high press as a modus operandi — to the contrary, they were often too willing to sit deep, cede possession and absorb pressure — they certainly deployed a direct attacking style focused on quick transitions.

Unlike Liverpool, which also used direct style focused on rapid transitions to great effect in 2013-14, Villa relied on the long ball. They led the Premier League with 71 such passes per game in 2013-14, according to WhoScored.com, and finished the following season fourth in the division with 74 long balls per game.

It’s worth noting, however, just what a “long ball” entails. WhoScored, for instance, defines long balls as passes “of 25 yards or more” — meaning that Benteke’s long, measured ball to Agbonlahor that created Villa’s first goal against Liverpool at Anfield that season, as well as Bacuna’s pass into Gabby’s feet in the build up to Villa’s second, could both have easily been categorized as long balls. Contrary to popular conception, both passes were played on the floor.

That’s not to say Villa didn’t like lumping it up to the big Belgian; they did it with great frequency over each of the past two seasons, with Benteke usually winning the ball. Only Andy Carroll won more aerial duels per game than Benteke over the last two years, and Carroll played for a Sam Allardyce team that ranked among the most prolific crossing sides in each of those seasons (2nd in 2013-14 and 1st in 2014-15).

Villa, while big fans of the long ball, interestingly ranked only 16th in crosses per game in 2013-14 and 14th by the same measure last season — numbers that counter Tactics Tim’s assertion that Villa “cross more balls into the box than any other club in the league” and the suggestion that Benteke can’t fit into a team that doesn’t cross prolifically, like Liverpool. Of course, Benteke does actually “feed off crosses,” as no player has scored more headed goals (13) in the Premier League since he made his debut in 2012.

Which goes back to the notion, according to Benteke’s detractors, that’s he’s ill-equipped to play in a Brendan Rodgers attack that likes to keep it on the carpet. That narrative also feeds into the idea that he has neither the pace nor work rate to both close down the opposition when Liverpool are pressing off the ball, or to make penetrative runs behind defenders once the team has won the ball back.

It all comes down to the fact that Liverpool have yet to replace Luis Suarez since he left the club last summer, and many supporters still pine for a like-for-like replacement that, presumably, will prompt the return of an attack that scored 101 goals in 38 games and take the team back to within three points of the title. Benteke simply doesn’t look like that sort of player, whereas sexier continental names like Anthony Lacazette or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang do.

But that would discount what Liverpool are buying in Benteke — a deceptively mobile player who is not only capable with the ball at his feet, but also provides another dimension for Rodgers and Liverpool’s attack. He’s definitely not Suarez, or Lacazette, or Aubameyang, but he’s one of the Premier League’s most prolific scorers over the past several seasons and a terror on the counterattack. And while offside statistics don’t tell the whole story, Benteke’s actually indicate a propensity for getting behind defenses; he’s averaged 1.2 offsides per game in each of the last two seasons, among the highest rates in the league during that time.

His defensive numbers don’t amaze; he averaged 0.3 successful tackles per game in 2013-14 and 0.4 tackles per game last season, ranking virtually dead last among strikers who played at least 19 games each of those years. It should be noted, though, that in 2013-14 he averaged the same number of tackles per game as Romelu Lukaku, Rickie Lambert and, funnily enough, Daniel Sturridge — three strikers playing in aggressive, high-energy setups who all had career years that season. Only Lukaku, Graziano Pelle and Nikica Jelavic averaged less tackles per game than Benteke this past season.

So it goes without saying that such statistics are often open to interpretation; Daniel Sturridge, those numbers would have you believe, was among the least proactive strikers in the Premier League out of possession two seasons ago, and yet anyone who watched Sturridge or Liverpool play could tell you he was a vital part of one of the most aggressive pressing sides in the league — he just didn’t attempt (0.6 per game) or make (0.3) many tackles.

In Benteke’s case, he was playing in a side that was among the least adventurous in the Premier League off the ball. It’s no secret that Villa willingly ceded possession under Lambert, all too willing to drop back and absorb pressure before taking their chances on the counter. They ranked third-last in the league in possession (44 percent) in 2013-14, though they averaged the seventh-most tackles per game as a side. Last season, they bumped those possession numbers up to 49 percent, good for 11th in the league, while ranking second last in tackles per game. So Villa as a side over the last two seasons have oscillated between not wanting any of the ball and not working particularly hard to win it back; it’s hardly down to Benteke.

One has to take all these statistics into account but also factor in the context, as well as what the tape tells us about the player. Observers will continue to debate whether Benteke is the right man to lead the line for Liverpool when the season kicks off next month, with Sturridge still on the shelf (and unreliable as a number one option) and the club in desperate need of a new focal point in attack.

We simply won’t know with Benteke until he takes the field for Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool; his skillset is too varied, and the teams he’s played in too geared toward a specific style of play, to tell how he fits in a new side with a whole new crop and caliber of teammates.

****

My bet is that Rodgers and the Anfield braintrust think Liverpool are getting the best player available for what they’re trying to do, and at a relatively reasonable fee given the prices slapped on other top European strikers this summer. Benteke, first and foremost, is a talented footballer — a good dribbler and skilled passer, a prolific goalscorer who can score in any number of ways. He’s 24, he has Premier League experience, and he’s a massive physical presence for a team that has appeared undersized and lightweight recently.

He’s more than capable of spearheading a dangerous counterattack, both in linking up with other players and providing a reference point at the top of the field — something Liverpool missed sorely last season, particularly when relying on Raheem Sterling as a makeshift striker. And he’s a needed threat for a side that was poor at set pieces last season, both in attack and defense.

I can’t see Benteke not putting a shift in for Rodgers when Liverpool are out of possession; he’s always looked an active and engaged player for Aston Villa, a team that was obviously under no instruction to press aggressively for most of the time he was there. His pace has never been searing, but the guy can move; he’s never shown a reluctance to run channels and get on the end of outballs on the counter, where he’s comfortable facing up to the league’s best defenders or picking out a trailing teammate for a killer ball.

Questions regarding how he fits into any given tactical setup that Rodgers chooses to field are redundant. Benteke played in any number of formations at Villa — most often through the middle in a 4-3-3 under Lambert, and occasionally in a 4-4-2 alongside Agbonlahor. While Villa played mostly in Sherwood’s preferred 4-4-2 after he replaced Lambert, it’s worth noting Benteke adapted well to the 4-4-2 diamond that Tactics Tim deployed at times, with Jack Grealish playing behind Benteke and Agbonlahor.

It’s hard to see him having trouble playing next to Dan Sturridge whenever he returns from injury, as Studge can work alongside him (the way people thought he would with Mario Balotelli) or accommodate Benteke, as he did Suarez, by shifting wide. Or Benteke could accommodate Sturridge; it’s not like he lacks the movement or skill to play as a wide forward, and the front three he played in at Villa was far from static, with Benteke, Agbonlahor and Weimann often interchanging positions.

Look, in many ways it’s a risk. Fifteen months ago, Benteke suffered an injury that’s debilitated and ended the careers of many top-level professional athletes. And looking through the data, his injury and subsequent recovery is virtually unprecedented. Nine Premier League players have ruptured an Achilles tendon since 2010, according to data provided by Premier Injuries Ltd: Philippe Senderos, Mamady Sidibe (twice), Yossi Benayoun, Sam Ricketts, Ricardo Fuller, Jermaine Jenas, Steven Taylor (twice), Charles N’Zogbia and Benteke.

Most of those players — Sidibe, Benayoun, Rickets, Fuller, Jenas and Taylor (the second time) — were either approaching or on the wrong side of 30. Some of them, like Jenas and Taylor, were injury cases; none of them, with the possible exceptions of N’Zogbia and Senderos, recovered anything resembling pre-injury form. Never before has a player of Benteke’s skillset, caliber and profile — a top-class, 24-year-old Premier League striker approaching the peak of his powers — suffered an Achilles rupture and returned to their previous level, much less found themselves moving to Liverpool for £33 million afterward.

But Benteke showed remarkable resilience to recover from the setback in a matter of six month — an expedient timeframe, by any measure, to come back from a ruptured Achilles. He took a bit of time to find his form in a team that was absolutely dire during Lambert’s last few months in charge, though it’s worth noting he’s always been a slow starter — something Liverpool fans might not want to hear heading into a critical season that starts with a rough stretch of away games. Benteke scored 5 goals in his first 17 Premier League matches in 2012-13, eventually going on a tear to bag 14 in the final 21 games. This past season, still working his way back from the Achilles injury, Benteke had to wait until March 3 to score his third goal of the campaign; he then went on to score 10 in his last 10 league games to help keep Villa in the Premier League.

It’s often said that it takes a full season for athletes who have suffered a serious, season-ending injury — like ruptured Achilles or torn cruciate ligament — to fully work themselves back to peak fitness. Benteke has been operating well ahead of that curve, and with a full summer at his disposal to rest, recover and train, the odds are he’ll be in even better shape next season.

As such, Liverpool should have a good idea of what they’re getting in Christian Benteke. It’s a lot of money for any player, but it’s reasonable value given his age, record and the fact this team is in desperate need of a top-class, international-level striker who can lead the line every week. He’s unlike any striker Rodgers has had at Liverpool, but that’s likely a good thing — he’s too good a footballer not to adapt to the manager’s preferred style, but he’ll also bring something completely different to the table as an attacking option. And if his body of work shows us anything, it’s that he’s a clever player who can play in any number of setups or formations.

But every transfer is a risk, and we won’t know for sure until he’s out there on the pitch for Liverpool. August 9 can’t come soon enough.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s