Benteke faces a battle to restore our Christian belief

Date published: Friday 16th March 2018 3:26

If you don’t like stats, look away now. Because we’re going to do a deep dive into the stats of Christian Benteke, striker for Crystal Palace. I can’t promise excitement – although I’m the type who gets excited by left-footed shots per 90 in away matches in February – but you’ll see some telling numbers.

Let’s lead with the strongest card. Benteke is the not-so-proud possessor of one of the most remarkable individual stats of the season. As defined by Opta, he’s missed 18 big chances. That’s not the most in the league: Mo Salah has missed 19. But Salah has scored 24 league goals; Benteke has scored two. Compare that to Ashley Barnes, who has missed three big chances and scored six goals, or Jamie Vardy, who has missed three big chances and scored 10 non-penalty goals. Benteke’s ratio is unthinkable for any striker north of the Cherry Red Records Combined Counties League.

But this year is an anomaly. Before this season, he was known by the boffins as one of the most statistically consistent strikers in world football. Whether he played for Aston Villa, Liverpool, or Crystal Palace, he delivered close to the same output every year.

For his first five Premier League years, here’s a chronological listing of his shots/90:
3.3, 2.8, 3.0, 3.6, 3.0

And here are his non-penalty goals/90:
0.5, 0.3, 0.5, 0.5, 0.4

Successful dribbles per 90:
0.8, 1.4, 1.1, 0.7, 0.7

Pass completion percentage:
65.0, 60.7, 66.7, 66.1, 59.6

Unsuccessful touches per 90:
2.4, 2.8, 2.5, 3.0, 2.7

There are occasional mild statistical bumps, and one or two leaps, but over five years, three clubs, and a passle of managers, it’s very stable output. You know what you’re getting with Christian Benteke.

Except this year. Now let’s look at those sequences again, with this year’s numbers added in.

Shots/90:
3.3, 2.8, 3.0, 3.6, 3.0, 2.3

Non-penalty goals/90:
0.5, 0.3, 0.5, 0.5, 0.4, 0.1

Successful dribbles per 90:
0.8, 1.4, 1.1, 0.7, 0.7, 0.5

Pass completion percentage:
65.0, 60.7, 66.7, 66.1, 59.6, 57.2

Unsuccessful touches per 90:
2.4, 2.8, 2.5, 3.0, 2.7, 3.2

In several crucial categories, he’s doing notably worse. He’s just not the player he was. So far, so obvious. But there’s some intriguing good news mixed in.

First, although his key passes/90 are almost another career low, he has five assists, a career high, and four of those five are genuine chances created. Lucky or more incisive?

Second, even though his touch numbers are the worst ever, the times he’s been actually dispossessed are the lowest ever. Surer on the ball, or less possession because of his poor touch?

Finally, here’s the career sequence of his tackles attempted/90, including this year:
0.8, 0.7, 0.6, 0.7, 0.7, 1.1

So he’s working harder on defence now than ever before. But you kind of wonder: have the increased defensive responsibilities affected his attacking game? It’s certainly not impossible, even though the jump in defensive work isn’t so very great.

But here’s a jump for which the word “great” seems far too mild. Benteke is a striker, and strikers can get caught offside a lot. In his five full years in the Premier League, among all players with at least 1,000 minutes, Benteke finished 3rd, 6th, 1st, 11th, and 6th in offsides/90. This year so far? He’s 41st.

Now a big change in these numbers is not unheard of. It depends largely on managers and tactics. Romelu Lukaku’s rankings in the same period are 1st, 32nd, 10th, 43rd, 8th and 34th. When he moved from West Brom to Everton, he went to a short passing Roberto Martinez side, and his numbers dropped accordingly. (Not sure what happened in that second year at Everton, though.) While he was still at Goodison Park, Ronald Koeman used him much more frequently as a target man on the shoulder, so once more the ranking went up. Now at Manchester United, he rarely pushes up against the back four, and so we’re down again.

Lukaku clearly was capable of adapting from year to year. But Benteke has been used to playing as a target man forcing the play against the back line. Even at Liverpool, with more than two-thirds of his minutes under Jürgen Klopp’s gegenpressing, he finished 11th in the league. The next year, under Alan Pardew at Crystal Palace, it was the usual approach again. Under Roy Hodgson, though, he’s getting just as many aerial duels, but being told to come back for the ball rather than push forward. Has the change thrown him out of whack?

I admit it sounds farfetched, and there’s absolutely no proof. But the coincidence is striking. And although professionals should be able to adapt their game to different approaches, you never know what’s going to put a player off balance. His performances this season are so far below his usual level that you look for explanations other than the simple “He’s just having a bad year,” which may in fact be the closest we can get.

Last weekend against Chelsea, Benteke was yanked at halftime, with Hodgson rather pointedly implying he wasn’t pulling his weight. In a relegation race, with every match crucial, he might find himself on the bench instead of the pitch. Hopefully that’ll provide some incentive to stay focused. At this point he’s unlikely to make a huge dent in his numbers, but he might yet help keep Palace up – and even stat types know that’s more important.

Peter Goldstein

 

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