“There’s no point him going to a club where they don’t cross the ball” – Tim Sherwood on Christian Benteke, 2014
Christian Benteke has made a £32.5m move to Liverpool this week after Aston Villa were reluctantly forced to accept his buy-out clause.
Despite the acquisition of fellow attackers Roberto Firmino and Danny Ings, Brendan Rodgers has made the Villa forward his marquee signing of the summer following Raheem Sterling’s £45m departure earlier in the month but how will he fit into the manager’s preferred system?
Public opinion differs over the contribution Belgian attacker Benteke will make at Anfield. One school of thought is that the natural goal scorer’s instincts will enable him to continue his impressive strike-rate at a higher level, whilst others think his performances may suffer in a team which refuses to play to his strengths.
Benteke joined Aston Villa in the summer of 2012 from Belgian side Genk for £7m after scoring 16 goals in 32 matches, helping his team qualify for the Europa League in third place. Three goals in five games at the start of the following campaign convinced Villa boss Paul Lambert to stump up the cash and ease the goalscoring burden on Darren Bent.
The striker adapted almost immediately to the pace of the Premier League and thrived under the additional pressure and increased physicality as he scored 23 goals in all competitions in his debut season in England. The following summer, Benteke submitted and eventually withdrew a transfer request following talks with Lambert but the Democratic Republic of Congo-born attacker has long looked likely to move on to play for a club with European aspirations.
Chelsea and Tottenham were two clubs heavily linked with a move for the powerful centre-forward but Liverpool have finally concluded the summer-long saga with the 24-year-old signing a contract described as ‘a long-term deal’.
Last season he contributed 13 of Villa’s 31 league goals (43%) and double that of second-highest scorer Gabriel Agbonlahor as he hit scintillating form following the appointment of Tim Sherwood as manager. The ex-Tottenham head coach brought the best out of his star striker as Benteke begun a purple patch at the beginning of March, scoring 11 goals in 10 games to help lift the Villains away from the relegation zone.
But how did Sherwood change Benteke’s fortunes in front of goal? Well, as he did with Emmanuel Adebayor at White Hart Lane, he made his centre forward the fulcrum of his attack and ensured his strength and superb hold-up play was utilised. Benteke’s key statistics doubled in certain areas as the Villa striker increased from 4.7 headers per game to 10, as long-balls were continually directed towards the target man as he finished the year win the highest number of aerial duels won in the league.
Benteke also enjoyed a strong relationship with Villa right-back Leandro Bacuna both on and the pitch, with the former Groningen player providing four assists to his close ally, the third best combination in the Premier League.
According to the number crunchers at WhoScored.com, Benteke lost possession due to a poor touch 2.3 times per game last year; one of the highest in the division. He was comfortably the most regular offside player with 1.2 calls against his name every 90 minutes and has missed more clear-cut chances in the last two seasons than any other player bar Sergio Aguero and Olivier Giroud.
Following speculation of Liverpool’s interest, Sherwood claimed the Reds would be forced to match Benteke’s buy-out clause of £32.5m. Unhappy at losing his main goal threat, the 46-year-old insisted it would be a bad decision to leave Villa Park for a club which did not play to Benteke’s strengths. Liverpool appear to be that sort of team, with the statistics showing that Brendan Rodgers’ side deliver the least number of crosses per game (17) compared to any other side in the English top-flight.
Liverpool’s preferred 3-4-2-1 formation can often see the likes of Sterling, Markovic and Coutinho all leading the attack. At an average height of 5’7”, high aerial balls into the box are rare sight at Anfield and questions remain over whether Benteke will be able to adapt to his new team’s system. He demonstrated against Tottenham in April that he is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of the team. Against Spurs, he worked hard all game to close down and press defenders high up the field and will have to reproduce that level of performance on a weekly basis if he is to avoid the pitfalls Mario Balotelli experienced last season.
Rodgers is keen to return to the fast-tempo blitz which unnerved teams during the runner-up 2013/14 season. During that highlight year, Rodgers had the luxury of Luis Suarez in attack. His Uruguayan forward would bust a lung to close down defenders and would successfully win over one tackle a game throughout the year. Benteke, in comparison, has never succeeded in more than half a tackle per 90 minutes.
A complete forward with a good eye for goal, the new arrival at Anfield will be given time to settle before the fans reach a conclusion. The supporters will have vivid memories of previous failed big money moves, with immobile forward Andy Carroll the obvious comparison following his ill-fated £35m move from Newcastle United in 2011.
At the time, the Toon striker had played only a handful of Premier League matches and whilst his form had been impressive, Benteke has shown relative consistency over a three year period. The Kop faithful will know all about their new striker having seen first-hand the damage he can cause opponents. The Belgian ran Liverpool ragged in 2012 as he scored and assisted his strike-partner Andi Weimann with a clever back-heel inside the box in a 3-1 win at Anfield.
He showcased his ruthless finishing to his new supporters last season too, as he scored the crucial equaliser and won the Man of the Match award for his performance in a 1-0 win over the Reds. That result secured a rare league double over their opponents and increased his goal tally to 5 goals in 6 appearances against Liverpool.
Goals (and probably silverware) may ultimately be the deciding factor on whether Benteke will prove to be a good fit for the Merseyside club. £32.5m is a significant sum of money for a player who arguably looks a poor fit for Rodgers side. However, the Northern Irish boss was experimental with his formations last term in the search for consistency and if he can extract Benteke’s key attributes, it could prove to be a very shrewd move for a talented goal scorer.