AN international player once told me: “One of the hardest and most annoying things is when you feel like some of your team-mates are playing in a completely different game on a completely different pitch to you.”
These words often smack me across the face when I watch Christian Benteke in a Liverpool shirt.
As an individual, the Belgian is an explosive powerhouse who can batter defences and deliver moments that make the difference. But as part of Jürgen Klopp’s collective, he looks like he’s engaged in a game of Minecraft while those around him are strumming away on Guitar Hero.
The German manager’s style, while different to that of Brendan Rodgers, requires many of the same fundamentals that made me wonder why Liverpool were willing to pay £32.5million for a striker so at odds with them. The countless questions in the summer are only heightened now, especially given Daniel Sturridge’s continued injury setbacks.
Benteke has not been a disaster for Liverpool, not even close. He has five goals in all competitions, the highest tally for the Reds, which is only matched by Philippe Coutinho this season.
But what is clear is that the side look at their fluid, swarming best when the 25-year-old is not in the starting line-up. The telepathy between Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana and Coutinho in the 4-1 decimation of Manchester City illustrated how destructive Liverpool can be when they play to their attacking strengths: the high press, lightning-fast transitions, and rapid movement in tandem.
Similarly, the work of Sturridge and Divock Origi against Southampton was mesmerising. The positioning of the pair, as well as their desire to run into dangerous spaces they could effectively be supplied in, scorched the hosts at St Mary’s.
Granted both those performances came away from home against teams that offered Liverpool the chance to steal the ball and smash the game. But the offensive pressure and the unrelenting movement that marked both victories is not synonymous with Benteke.
Where the forward has looked at his most effective is off the bench to take advantage of a defence that has already been twisted and turned. At Stamford Bridge, his 26-minute cameo helped finish off the tireless effort in attack of Coutinho, Firmino and Lallana as Liverpool recorded a 3-1 victory. It was the work them then hurt them approach.
Both Benteke’s league goals under Klopp have come as a substitute — he was on the scoresheet in the 1-1 draw with Southampton prior to the win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
The former Aston Villa man did extract a penalty and get another for his tally in the 2-1 Europa League ousting of Bordeaux when featuring from the off, but Liverpool looked laboured rather than luminary in that encounter.
Benteke has started in the only two defeats of Klopp’s tenure: against Crystal Palace and Newcastle. Of course, that is not to suggest the failure was solely down to him, but it lends itself to the trend that the team are better when his name is not among the first 11.
His other run-outs from the first whistle under the German read: 1-0 over Swansea and 2-2 with West Brom in the league, as well as the 1-0 win in Kazan.
Since Klopp’s October unveiling, Liverpool have blitzed 15 goals with Benteke as a sub, that number is diminished to seven with him in the starting line-up.
There have been several quotes, especially from ex-players, stating his team-mates should simply supply more crosses to him or play the ball directly to his feet. This makes sense, yes, but it goes against the natural instincts of the likes of Coutinho and Firmino for example, and is also not the best way to combat either a stacked defence or to exploit space speedily.
Consistent passes to feet promote a slower, stationary style which is easier to mark. Ahead of the hosting of West Brom, I asked Klopp in the press conference about the key elements his side require to break down the opposition more regularly: “It needs ideas, it needs creativity, it needs movement, it needs flexibility.”
He has been preaching the speedy spotting and capitalisation of space. To move, move, move. To give the other side hell. To go full-throttle.
The other important fact to mention is that Liverpool have been crossing more. In the eight league matches under Klopp of which Benteke has started four, the Reds average 27.25 crosses per match.
In the other four, that figure is just 16.25 per match. The service can be sharper, yes. But Benteke needs to be better too.
The club’s second most expensive signing in its history too often drops back, when he needs to run beyond. Stays passive when his help is needed in the press…
Liverpool have been trying to play to his strengths but, put simply, Liverpool’s best play and his require different things.
Klopp has defended Benteke, and he has insisted the striker can flourish on Merseyside if patience is practiced.
The number nine definitely does have a role to play, but at the moment, it looks like it’s a supporting rather than a starring one.
Pics: Propaganda-Photo–David Rawcliffe