IT’S easy to name signings Liverpool have made over the last few years that we immediately felt the need to try to justify, writes NEIL DOCKING.
There are those of us who are naturally more sceptical and emphatically voice reservations about a player from day one.
But for many being a football fan relies on a healthy dose of blind optimism. And when a questionable transfer comes along, we adopt the default stance of attempting to convince ourselves it’s a clever coup. Sometimes it’s a front when talking to rival supporters. “Yeah, £35million is a lot, but we had money to burn from selling Torres and he’s the next Alan Shearer.” Other times it’s pouring over statistics to regurgitate to our mates: “He got seven goals and seven assists for Villa last season and £20m is the going rate for an England winger.”
Sadly, nothing any of us could say about Andy Carroll or Stewart Downing could lessen the impact of the sheer disasters they turned out to be. There are plenty more to add to the list, too — Dejan Lovren, Charlie Adam, Robbie Keane — take your pick. I’m still waiting on Mario Balotelli to back up my assertion: “If nothing else he’ll smash one in from 30 yards in the derby.”
This summer the potential signing that’s had lots of Reds frothing at the mouth is the seemingly imminent arrival of Christian Benteke. I’ve found the reaction bewildering, especially when reading tweets along the lines of “we’ve undone all our good work signing Firmino” or the blunt “he’s not good enough”. On this occasion I just don’t feel like we should need reassuring.
Putting my neck on the line — because we all know in modern football there is nothing worse than being WRONG and I’ll be reminded of it forever if he flops — here’s why I’m excited about Benteke pulling on the Red shirt.
Let’s set to one side the way he’s repeatedly terrorised Martin Skrtel and friends (not the toughest achievement admittedly) because impressing against Liverpool was a reason for signing half the flops I listed earlier. Firstly, Benteke scores goals. Lots of goals. Loads of goals. Goals galore. The priceless commodity every Liverpool fan was crying out for last season. Years before Messi and Ronaldo redefined scoring statistics with phenomenal feats, we always talked about the mythical ‘one in two striker’. Well that’s what Benteke has been for Aston Villa. He’s notched a whopping 49 goals in 101 games for the Midlands outfit over three seasons (while setting up a further 14).
He’s managed this tally despite the fact he’s spent most of that time playing in a relegation-threatened side under Paul Lambert, a manager so negative Villa once went 10 hours without scoring. Should the blame for that barren spell be laid at Benteke’s door? Well, he was their main striker, but seeing as he was recovering from Achilles surgery, it would appear harsh.
And given the fact he started banging them in again once Tim Sherwood took over, it’s fair to say Lambert’s dire defensive tactics were the primary problem.
It’s not like he had a lot of support. Just imagine how many goals Benteke could rack up if he was being supplied by Coutinho, Firmino, Henderson and co, instead of N’Zogbia, Richardson, and Delph.
Secondly, look at the type of goals he scores. This is not a man, as has been portrayed in some quarters, who relies solely on crosses to convert headers. They’re all there. Whether he’s turning his man on the edge of the box and slamming it in the top bin, delicately placing the ball in the side netting, lobbing the keeper, taking one touch and drilling it hard and low, bending in a free kick, or calmly slotting a penalty.
Don’t get me wrong — he does score lots of great headers — including some fantastic diving efforts. He’s brilliant in the air. But that’s far from the only string to his bow.
50 – @bentekechris20 has been involved in 50 PL goals for Villa since debuting (Sept 2012), 43% of the team's total in that time. Departing?
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 16, 2015
Thirdly, his all-round play is impressive. He displays a lovely touch and good close control and effortlessly brings others into play with either a simple lay-off or deft flick.
While he can work wonders as a target man bringing a lofted ball down or bullying defenders in an aerial duel, he also shows intelligent movement and picks up positions where he can best hurt the opposition. Note to Mario: He’s not just unmarked because he decides to stand by the corner flag.
Lastly, Benteke is not slow, nor a lumbering, lazy lump. We’ve been burned by Carroll, Lambert and Balotelli, but he categorically does not lack mobility or pace.
He’s not a speed demon like Daniel Sturridge, but he’s fast, able to play on the shoulder of the last defender and latch onto a through ball, and capable of covering ground quickly and pressing a defender.
Perhaps he’s been wrongly categorised by some observers in the way discussed in the FSG bible Moneyball. Because he looks like (and definitely is) a big, strong unit, fans may unconsciously judge the player on his physique, not his true ability. This then leads to them mistakenly attributing inaccurate deficiencies to him, like a perceived lack of pace.
Think back to those who saw Peter Crouch as a big lanky beanpole with limited technical ability, when in reality he could pluck a ball out of the air and was a master of bicycle kicks.
Another common gripe is the size of the transfer fee, as fans are unhappy with Liverpool matching the 24-year-old’s £32.5m release clause. As pointed out on TAW, it’s the going rate. Romelu Lukaku, a then 21-year-old who scored every other game for West Bromwich Albion and Everton, cost the Blues £28m. Wilfried Bony, a 26-year-old who scored at a rate of one in two for Swansea, cost Manchester City £28m. If £28m is the standard price, then I have to say I don’t mind Liverpool spending £4m or so extra to ensure a key target is secured.
There are valid concerns and one I share is his injury record. Sturridge is seemingly permanently crocked, so do we really need an expensive pal to keep him company on the treatment table? I read an interesting piece written by an Aston Villa fan, who pointed out that Benteke isn’t really ‘that’ injury prone. His point was the Belgian sustained a hip injury during the first half of the 2013/14 season and an Achilles injury from a bad tackle in training just before the 2014 World Cup, but other than that, has remained relatively injury-free while in England. This also doesn’t appear to have been a problem for him while playing for KRC Genk in Belgium.
The chief concern among those who put forward a reasoned case why Benteke doesn’t belong at Anfield is that he’s unsuited to our team’s “playing style”. I can see where they’re coming from. However, after three seasons on Merseyside, I’m still not sure whether Brendan Rodgers has a defined playing style, other than a broad commitment to attacking football. He certainly hasn’t settled on a formation.
Clearly we’re all still mourning the loss of Luis Suarez, amplified by our failure to adequately replace his goals last summer. But are we willing to write off *any* top striker, unless he plays in a manner comparable to El Pistolero?
The endorsement of a goalscoring legend is no guarantee of success — presumably Kenny Dalglish thought Carroll would be a hit — but Robbie Fowler recently told the Echo he believes Benteke would be “perfect” for the Reds. He said: “In terms of all-round play — strength, speed, physicality, finishing — I think Benteke could be the main man for Liverpool. I’ve watched him a lot and he’s not just a target man. He can hold the ball well and bring others into play but he’s also mobile and keeps defenders on their toes.
“I think he’s ideal for the way Brendan wants to play. It’s probably what we lacked at times last season. We had forwards who wanted to drop deep to get involved with the play and we always had that gap up front. With a Benteke type, you have someone who will stay up there and stretch defenders. He scores goals, he’s a threat and a real handful for defenders.”
Contrary to what Robbie says, my impression of Benteke is that he does like to drop deep to collect the ball and run at goal. But he’s right that under Tim Sherwood he appeared to relish playing as far forward as possible, and it reaped dividends.
Unlike anyone at Liverpool bar Sturridge — for whom we desperately need an alternative — Benteke is comfortable being deployed as a lone striker. Our plethora of attacking midfielders would surely love the chance to exploit the spaces he would create.
Best of all, they’ll soon know that if they serve up an opportunity for Benteke, the likelihood is the back of the net will bulge. And nothing convinces doubters like goals.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo