22 July 2015

On Christian Benteke

The transfer we all suspected (and feared, and complained) was inevitable finally becomes inevitable.

It seems most have finally come around to the transfer, or at least come to terms with it, but I'm sure you've seen the frantic condemnation and hand-wringing all the same.

Let's just get it all out of the way now.


"Why didn't Liverpool sign Lacazette/Aubameyang/Vietto/Reus?"

"He only scores from crosses, Liverpool never cross!"

"Mid-table over-priced Premier League signing, just like Ings, Milner, Clyne, Lallana, etc."

"blah blah blah Andy Carroll!!!!!!!!!! blah blah blah."

To which I feel obliged to respond:

- Transfer prices have skyrocketed this summer thanks to the massive amount of money in the league, but yeah, that sure is a boatload of cash.

- Either those players didn't want to come to Liverpool, their clubs didn't want to sell them, or (less likely) Liverpool didn't want them. I'd have preferred Messi myself, if we're pipe-dreaming.

- Benteke doesn't only score from crosses, although he doesn't get a bunch from crosses – both in open play and from set plays – but A) having an alternative isn't a bad thing, B) Liverpool will probably cross more this season, after adding Milner and Clyne and someone to actually cross to. and C) if you think he's nothing but headers and crosses, you've haven't seen that much of him. Because he's done far more than that in just his matches against Liverpool.

- Okay, true, but some of those players have actually been acceptable, I guess. And I expect decent things from those signed this summer. Also, be fair, Liverpool have signed a lot of players from outside the Premier League who've failed too.

The Andy Carroll comparison seems especially facile. Benteke is not Carroll for more than a few reasons, but most notable is that he's done it for a few seasons, rather than half of one. He's also faster, stronger, more durable, and seemingly a responsible professional rather than a running joke soaked in booze and Axe Body Spray, but his résumé is the more meaningful difference.

Benteke has averaged a nearly a goal every two games for three Premier League seasons.

As Paul Tomkins wrote, Emile Heskey seems a better comparison, at least physically, but Heskey was never as prolific as Benteke either, scoring once every four league games prior to moving to Liverpool compared to Benteke's once every two games.

Arguments with folks about Heskey's attributes were one of the first Liverpool arguments I remember having. Sure, he didn't score enough. Sure, he was an easy target for jokes and criticism. But, at his best, at Liverpool's best, he was vital in making space for Owen and Fowler to thrive, winning and holding possession, occupying and dragging defenders out of position, offering a different option. At the very, very least, Benteke will be able to do similar for Sturridge, Firmino, Coutinho, Lallana, etc. That's probably not enough to justify £32.5m, but it's a reasonable floor for expectations as well, and better than Liverpool currently have.

Benteke adds a different option to Liverpool, something Rickie Lambert was supposed to, but ultimately couldn't do last season. Multiple options, and a much deeper, varied squad, seem good things. Although there is still the worry that Rodgers never seemed to figure out his best side last season, and now he's got more pieces for the puzzle in this.

Also, let's be fair. Aston Villa – unless they were playing Liverpool, naturally – were generally awful. Only Sunderland averaged fewer key passes per match last season; only Sunderland and West Brom averaged fewer shots; only Sunderland and Burnley scored fewer goals. They were generally awful in all three of Benteke's seasons, threatened with relegation in each. So it's hard to tell how many of Benteke's flaws – the lack of dribbling and defensive contribution, the reliance on crosses and aerial duels – is due to the player's preferences or Aston Villa's style under Lambert and Sherwood. It's still enough to make you worry, but it's also enough to make excuses.

And if not for Benteke, Aston Villa probably would've been out of the Premier League three years ago.

Like Danny Ings, Benteke's seemingly bought to remedy one of last season's major failings.

So, all of Benteke's shots are headers, yes?

Not quite. 27 of Benteke's 79 non-penalty shots last season were headers (34.2%), and I actually thought it'd be more. 33.3% were on-target, leading to four goals, all from open play. Seven of his goals came with his right foot, two with his left. Eight of his goals came from open play (four headers, three right-footed, one left-footed), two from corners (both right-footed), one from a free kick (left-footed), and one each from a penalty and a direct free kick.

However, removing headers does make Benteke look much less potent in the Danger Zone. 25 of Benteke's 52 non-penalty Danger Zone shots were headers (48.1%). Eight were on-target (four goals), 14 off-target, and three blocked. 12 from set plays, 13 from open play.

Yes, Benteke likes a header. Yes, Benteke likes a cross. But, again, I suspect a fair amount of that was due to Villa. Three of Benteke's seven international goals from Belgium came from headers (all open play crosses); the other four were from a low cross, a byline cutback, running onto a chipped ball over the back line, and picked up the rebound after the defense failed to fully clear a cross.

He may prefer headers, as they're still his strongest attribute, but there's a fair bit of variation in his goals.

Preseason so far, while still very much preseason, has seemingly demonstrated that Liverpool intend to be a more direct side. Not necessarily a long ball side, although I suspect we'll see more of them this season than last, but a more vertical side, quick to push forward after winning possession, quick to get multiple players forward – most notably, Henderson and Milner from midfield, in contrast to last season's midfield – quick to get into the box.

Benteke will very much help in this manner, whether as an orthodox target-man or running at defenses. Which he can do; I suspect you'll remember him doing both against Liverpool in previous seasons. And, as many others have noted, he'll help on set plays, both attacking and defending them. Liverpool scored just 13 set play goals last season while conceding 19, down from 26 scored and up from 12 conceded the season before (all competitions).

Yes, this transfer is a massive risk. Yes, this could go very badly. Yes, there are valid concerns about both style and adaptability. Yes, Liverpool overpaid – although, if you hadn't noticed, every single Premier League transfer this summer has seemed to be an overpay, because money, there's so much money and everyone has money.

Brendan Rodgers has designed his bed, bought the sheets, pillows, and quilt, and made his bed. And now, for better or worse, he'll lie in it.

01 July 2015

On Nathaniel Clyne

Liverpool buying a player from Southampton? What could possibly go wrong?

Okay. Now we've gotten that out of the way.

Liverpool really aren't messing around this summer. Nathaniel Clyne just became Liverpool's sixth signing, after Milner, Ings, Bogdan, Gomez, and Firmino. Liverpool have announced replacements for Colin Pascoe and Mike Marsh.

Last summer and last season demonstrated that massive player turnover can be very much a bad thing, but Liverpool at least seem to have a plan this summer. And Liverpool have addressed almost every area of the pitch so far – even if there's still some way to go at the sharp end – midfield improved, attack improved, goalkeeping improved, and now, defense improved.

Let's be honest. Clyne's not incredibly impressive going forward, competent but slightly overrated and preferring to cross once he gets there. He is, however, very good in the tackle, good at avoiding fouls, good at keeping possession. He is, however, terrible in the air. He is solid, but not spectacular.

And, like Milner, like Ings, like Firmino, Clyne is durable, excellent at avoiding injuries. He started 35 and 34 games in 2014-15 and 2012-13. He only started 25 in 2013-14, but that was mainly due to splitting time with Calum Chambers more than injury, missing six matches because of two minor injuries.

As you may have noticed, Clyne's aerial statistics are really bad. That those totals span all three of his Premier League seasons, have stayed consistent through three different Southampton managers, means they're probably not improving much. That's a bit terrifying.

His key passes map is also slightly vexing. Eight of Clyne's 22 key passes (36.4%) last season came from crosses. That total was 11 of 28 (39.3%) in 2013-14 and eight of 20 (40%) in 2012-13. That's a fairly high total. Last season, if he got within 18 yards of the byline, he often crossed, and that was especially true when he created chances. And, as I'm sure you may remember, Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool do not cross all that often, although that might change somewhat depending on which striker Liverpool end up buying.

And, to be fair, I suspect that was at least partly by Southampton's design, with Graziano Pelle as target-man. Only West Ham averaged more crosses per game than Southampton last season. Only Swansea attempted fewer than Liverpool. You may also remember Clyne wreaking havoc in the box in the first game of last season. He might not get forward as often as other fullbacks, but he can be capable once getting there.

I wish I had Steve Finnan's stats from around the time he joined Liverpool in 2003-04, his last season with Fulham and his first few with Liverpool. I bet there'd be more than a few similarities. Clyne's almost certainly better going forward – Finnan scored just once and made only 11 assists in his five Liverpool seasons – but both are/were solid, steady, defensive-minded fullbacks who kept it simple and safe and committed few fouls. Similar was true for Alvaro Arbeloa.

I remember a lot of Liverpool supporters spending those two players' tenure wishing for the spectacular. And we got that with Glen Johnson: a tremendous attacking right-back, arguably the best in the league for his first few seasons, then an utter liability for the last couple when his legs went. Given both Rodgers' philosophy and Liverpool's flaws, solid and steady is probably better for the club at the moment. And it's absolutely an improvement on what Liverpool had at right-back last season.

Comparing Clyne to other Premier League right-backs generally thought of as some of the best last season leads to the same conclusion. He's not the best at anything, but he's rarely the worst either. Clyne completed fewer key passes compared to the other five players, but that might well be a function of what Southampton – read: Koeman – required from its fullbacks. And yes, Clyne's aerial ability will remain a preeminent concern; it's not as if Liverpool are already competent at defending crosses or set plays. But Clyne's seemingly aware of that weakness – every single player he's compared to above, Liverpool or Premier League, attempted more aerial duels. Not even aerial duels per 90. In total. Either that, or Southampton went out of their way to protect him from that weakness.

But otherwise, there are few holes in his game.

Nathaniel Clyne's solid and steady, dependable and durable, consistent, fairly well-rounded, and still fairly young having just turned 24. If everything goes to plan – and, admittedly, that doesn't happen for Liverpool all that often – this should be the right back position nailed down for the next five to eight years.

£12.5m certainly isn't cheap. I can't remember many Premier League teams paying more for fullbacks in the past ten years: Johnson and Moreno for Liverpool, Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers from Southampton, Boswinga, Kolarov, Filipe Luis, and maybe Debuchy are all that come to mind.

But considering Clyne is a newly-established English international, considering the fees Southampton received for Shaw and Chambers and Lovren and Lallana, considering the rise in transfer prices thanks to the ever-increasing influx of TV money, £12.5m actually does kind of seem cheap, even for a player in the last year of his contract.

Welcome to Liverpool, Nathaniel.