The shouts for Liverpool to close the deal on for a marquee striker have been deafening ever since Luis Suarez joined Barcelona and the club were unable to attract an adequate replacement last summer, and while Roberto Firmino ticks the marquee box, Liverpool still need a striker. A move for Christian Benteke to fill that striker void looks a question of when and not if, but will he be able to live up to his price tag and the requirements of a demanding fan base?
DOB: 3/12/90 (24) | Height: 6’3” (1.91 meters)
2014-15 Season: 35 appearances
16 goals, 3 assists
Strengths: Christian Benteke is, clearly, physically talented. At 6’3”, with a strong leap and terrific sense of timing, he wins 54% of his aerial duels—the 3rd highest rate of any striker in the Premier League—only bested by the alpine Peter Crouch and ponytail connoisseur Andy Carroll. He will drift along the front line, occasionally dropping deeper, use his powerful frame to post up on defenders with his back to goal, winning knockdowns and flick-ons for teammates, and in the box he will attack the ball with purpose. He has scored 13 of his 36 non-penalty goals since moving to the Premier League with his head.
When the ball is played into his feet, the Zairean-born Benteke shows an excellent first touch, taking the ball in the desired direction immediately. He combines it with a deceptive right-to-left body feint, often successfully throwing tight-marking defenders off his first move with his surprisingly fluid hips. Playing mostly with his back to goal, he prefers a simple pass and move game, giving the ball to an onrushing teammate and then moving towards the box. On the occasions when he is allowed to turn, the big man sees the pitch well and will try through balls into space if the run is on, to varying degrees of success.
When play moves beyond him, which was typically into wide areas in Paul Lambert’s Villa side, Benteke will quickly move towards the box. He has a natural understanding of where the spaces are and when the ball will come to him, making him equally adept at positioning himself for the cut-back, the far post run or the high cross.
Benteke possesses fearsome power in his shots, but his accuracy suffers when he tries to drive the ball, leading to some wild-looking finishes. He has more success when he passes it into the corners, accounting for the majority of his goals. Luckily, this seems to have become more of his modus operandi in his last season, and he looks composed and calm when the shot is on. His 14.8% conversion rate is decent, but not elite, especially for a man who only generates shots at an average of 3 per 90 minutes played.
Weaknesses: While he is not at all slow for such a big man, Benteke’s speed, both in a straight line and accelerating out of a cut, is limited. He is absolutely capable of bursting through lines using his physical tools, but he will rarely play off the shoulder of a defender or beat them for pace on a through ball. He will also rarely beat his man on the dribble, doing so only once every two games on average.
His passing stats are damning, and 63% completion is very bad, even for a striker. However, the style of Villa’s play must be taken into account, and it often left him outnumbered with few friendly targets and little time to find them. The occasional slick through ball and general competence with the ball at his feet hints at untapped quality here, but as it stands, he misplaces too many passes to call it anything but a weakness.
With caveats about playing style again to be considered, Benteke is not known for his pressing. He will cut off passing lanes and close down isolated ball carriers, but rarely wins the ball off the opposition, only completing a tackle every 192 minutes and recording an interception once every six games. He was generally not asked to harry and press with any sort of intensity under Lambert, so whether he is able to or not is hard to say. What is certain is that it’s not what he’s used to.
His style of drifting along the defensive line leads to him being caught offside quite often, and no player in the Premier League was adjudged offside more times per 90 last season than Christian Benteke.
Summation: There can be little doubt that Christian Benteke possesses plenty of ability. What questions remain with regards to his potential success at Liverpool are largely about style and fit. If one were of a positive disposition, they could say he offers a legitimate aerial threat for a side that lacks one and much of the hold-up play of Mario Balotelli—minus the dribbling but with a better understanding of the importance of and ability to get into quality scoring positions and with better finishing. Surrounding him with creative runners should give him outlets for his passing and provide him with service in the box, perhaps improving his overall output.
On the other hand, there is no denying the stylistic differences between Villa and Liverpool, and it’s easy to imagine him ending up the latest lone LFC striker to cut an isolated, ineffective figure up top, too slow in his pressing and too uncomfortable in the tight quarters of 18-yard boxes filled with buses to make much of a difference, his price tag becoming an albatross around his neck at his first big club.
No matter if he ends up costing Liverpool the £25M they’ve reportedly set as their maximum valuation or the £32.5M Villa continue to hold out for, the deal is a big risk. With a lack of legitimate options, though, perhaps it’s one Liverpool’s hierarchy feel they have to take.