Christian Benteke – Where did it all go wrong at Liverpool?

Sergio Aguero, Luis Suarez and Robin Van Persie; these were the only three Premier League players who had scored more than Christian Benteke in the three years prior to him joining Liverpool.

The Belgium international had spent three personally successful years at Aston Villa, where he became their undisputed talisman.

Boasting a record of just about a goal every other game (42 goals in 89 league games) was certainly impressive. But it’s even more so when it’s considered that he played for a side who frequently languished near the bottom of the table.

 

Brendan Rodgers brought Benteke to Liverpool with his reputation as a proven goal scorer well and truly established.  Something which Rodgers cited as lacking in his side, after the sale of Suarez a year earlier.

The high price tag was a cause for immediate concern though. It drew a number of comparisons to Liverpool’s other target man purchase of Andy Carroll in 2011.

Liverpool currently harbour a reputation for selling their best players and replacing them with fellow high-priced recruits, who ultimately fail to live up to expectations.

Xabi Alonso’s departure was countered with the arrival of Alberto Aquilani. Fernando Torres’ record-breaking move to Chelsea ushered in Carroll. And Suarez’s move to Barcelona brought about a raft of new signings including Mario Balotelli.

The comparisons to Carroll were drawn because of their price, size and similar style of play. But Benteke was always a different proposition to the Geordie. He had more technical ability and a willingness to link up play.

While he was also a proven player with plenty of top flight experience. However, doubts about where he fitted into a side which prioritised speedy interplay simply wouldn’t go away, just like it didn’t with Carroll.

Benteke was actually fairly effective at the beginning of the new campaign though. He showed signs of promise in their opening day defeat of Stoke. Then he scored against Bournemouth to get himself off the mark in a Liverpool shirt.

His greatest moment for Liverpool was undoubtedly when he hit a stunning overhead kick against Manchester United.

This proved to be his final act under Rodgers though, due to injury. By the time he regained fitness the Northern Irishman was gone. He was replaced by Jurgen Klopp and initially the signs were positive.

Klopp sang the front man’s praises after questions over his position only further intensified. Noted for his intense pressing and desire to transition defence into attack in the blink of an eye, Benteke appeared ill-suited to the cause.

But the Belgian seemed comfortable when he revealed Klopp had actually tried to sign him for Borussia Dortmund.

“It was after my first year at Aston Villa,” he said. “My agent and the manager had a meeting about doing a transfer but nothing happened.”

In his first game under Klopp he scored, and did so once more in the following match against Chelsea. However, from there things turned pear-shaped for both the club and the player.

A difficult December period, featuring a glut of fixtures, dampened the initial enthusiasm that Klopp’s arrival had brought.

 

The side eventually recovered and went on to make two unsuccessful final’s appearances. Meanwhile, Benteke was left languishing on the peripheries.

His young compatriot, Divock Origi, jumped ahead of him in the queue, leaving Benteke to make the odd cameo off the bench. He was clearly way down the pecking order and finished the season with nine goals and three assists.

Those numbers are respectable for a first year at Anfield and a campaign that was disrupted by injuries. But respectable just wasn’t enough. The Belgian had failed in many people’s eyes.

First seasons are notoriously difficult for some players as they adjust to life at their new clubs. With this in mind, Benteke’s first with Liverpool actually wasn’t all that bad.

Only Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, Torres, Suarez and Roberto Firmino have had better scoring returns.

Before his arrival on Merseyside it was clear what his strengths were. He won 188 aerial duels in his last season at Villa- the most in the Premier League.

While he had also scored more headed goals (13) than any other player during his time in England.

These were the stats that were cause for alarm though when they were coupled with the fact that Liverpool had actually attempted the lowest amount of crosses in the league the year before his arrival.

It could be fairly argued that the reason for this was that the side had no obvious target man. Yet it didn’t take away from the fact that Benteke’s arrival would mean an altering of the side’s style. He seemingly wasn’t a player that fitted into the system that Rodgers had been planning for.

The change in style and tactics from the outset were done to get the best out of Benteke and his unique skill set. However, this resulted in rather haphazard displays at times.

It saw players like Phillipe Coutinho averting their usual short passing style in order to spray long passes into Benteke.

Whether the striker actually wanted this is not entirely certain, but it resulted in a disappointing early season run for Liverpool.

They were guilty of looking for the long ball up to Benteke far too often. And from the outside looking in it was obvious that the team were stagnating. Rodgers was eventually sacked.

Liverpool’s opening day victory of the 2016/17 season over Arsenal highlighted just how out of place Benteke was in a team that Klopp has now claimed fully as his own.

The fluidity brought about by Firmino’s role as a false nine, and the interchanging of positions between the front three of Coutinho, Firmino and Sadio Mane had made Benteke’s role all but redundant.

 

No longer are Liverpool looking to play the way they did in seasons before. Instead, Klopp appears to favour a unit of fast, skilful players who can all feasibly fit into a number of positions.

Rather than servicing a stand-alone striker, they’re now occupying a number of different roles all within the space of one game.

Adam Lallana, Georginio Wijnaldum, Coutinho, Firmino, Mane and even bench players like Lazar Markovic and Origi can fulfil a number of positions within a few chosen formations.

This versatility and level of unpredictability seems to be what Klopp is looking for this season.

When they do need a Plan B, the out ball over the top to a strike, that has now fallen to Origi. The former Lille man is a natural choice for the role.

He offers lethal pace that can get in behind defences and also stretches the pitch, something which Benteke simply cannot do. He was no longer even a viable option from the bench in Klopp’s new look Liverpool.

All that is not to say that Benteke won’t be a success at Crystal Palace. In the London outfit he has found a home where they will play to his strengths. He will need to be given time and games before he hits his peak.

But when he does he could  prove to be the man who turns around Palace’s woeful 2016 form, and that is something that Alan Pardew desperately needed as he seeks to address his side’s downward spiral.

A revitalised Benteke may prove to be exactly what Pardew’s ordered, after nearly a season spent being a spare part at Liverpool.

Author Details

Mark Molyneux

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