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.

1 comment :

stephen said...

great summary nate ... very balanced ... it's an expensive risk but one that is worth taking given our desperate need at striker and the lack of better options that want to come to LFC.

on an unrelated matter, I noticed your assessment of Lucas on the depth charts, especially in the single pivot formations. while his athleticism has waned and he's injury prone, he played an important role in our 2014-15 mid-year revival in form. at this stage, if we play 433 or 4D2, I'd favor Lucas' defensive intelligence/experience over Allen's possession skills or Can's athleticism until those 2 demonstrate a better fit for the single pivot DM role. thoughts?