Christian Benteke: Liverpool’s £32.5million problem

Matt Stead

“Obviously I’ve heard and I’ve seen stuff about the style, ‘he won’t fit the style of how we play’ – I think he’ll only complement it and help us. He’s a big guy but he’s got the attributes that I like in terms of pace and movement and he gets goals, he gets all types of goals.” – Brendan Rodgers, 25 July.

If there were doubts over whether Christian Benteke could fit into Brendan Rodgers’ style at Liverpool, there are surely fears the Belgian will struggle to ever fully acclimatise to Jurgen Klopp’s more full-blooded approach. Rodgers may have identified the “pace and movement” of Benteke after making him the club’s second-most expensive player ever in the summer, but such attributes were sorely lacking in the 24-year-old’s performance against Newcastle.

After Divock Origi scored his first, second and third goals for the Reds in a whirlwind midweek Capital One Cup tie, with Daniel Sturridge supplementing his injury return with two goals of his own on Wednesday, the visitors to St James’ Park hoped Benteke would make it three in-form Liverpool strikers when handed a starting place against struggling Newcastle. What was delivered was a languid, lackadaisical, plodding shadow of the man who cost them £32.5million in the summer.

Benteke attempted one off-target shot during his hour in the 2-0 defeat on Sunday evening, registered the lowest passing accuracy of any outfield starter at 55.2%, and enjoyed the fewest touches of any outfield player in Liverpool red. For comparison, Sturridge was successful with 72.7% of his passes after his introduction on the hour, and had more shots on goal than any of his team-mates. With Sturridge’s eventual return to starting contention, these are not statistics which strengthen Benteke’s case.

The Belgian was slow both physically and mentally against a beleaguered Newcastle, and in turn, Liverpool’s attack suffered. Such a blunt focal point was in stark contrast to the dangers posed by the lively pairing of Origi and Sturridge in the 6-1 thrashing of Southampton, while it was a far cry from the delicate interchanges precipitated by Roberto Firmino’s role against Manchester City last month.

Benteke has now started 10 games in all competitions this season, with Liverpool scoring just eight goals in those games, and Benteke finding the net twice. In the 12 games Benteke has not started, Liverpool have scored 24 goals. Benteke is scoring at a rate of a goal every 202 minutes in all competitions this season; Sturridge’s record is a goal every 87.25 minutes.

It’s barely admissible evidence, but there was just one picture available of Benteke in action from Sunday evening’s game; it was of him missing a chance from a matter of yards.

The other two first-half blanks to involve Liverpool were the win over Swansea last week and the 3-1 defeat to Manchester United in September. The common link? Benteke started both, just as he did against Newcastle.

This is not to say Sturridge was perfect against Newcastle, far from it. The 26-year-old was understandably rusty and lacking in match fitness, but his pace and movement exemplified what was lacking from Benteke’s performance. Liverpool could not create with Benteke on the pitch, but they simply could not score the chances they created when Sturridge was introduced. The Englishman should have done considerably better when released on goal by Adam Lallana’s excellent pass with 75 minutes gone, but he posed far more of a threat in his lively cameo than Benteke in the preceding 60 minutes.

After expressing the need for patience and time with regards to Benteke last month, Klopp must find a way to integrate the Belgian into this side. A Benteke-less Liverpool looks more fluid and more threatening; they are slower and more predictable when he starts. Firmino’s performances with and without Benteke would prove a particularly interesting case study, with the Brazilian struggling due to a lack of movement and clever link-up play ahead of him.

For Newcastle, the sight of Momo Sissoko and Georginio Wijnaldum proving a constant menace must come with a tinge of frustration. Few sides in the Premier League boast a squad so capable of excellence but hampered by inconsistencies and a lack of effort. An excellent victory, but one which does not pull them out of the relegation zone. They have consolidated both their previous league victories this season with 3-0 defeats in the following game, and next up are Tottenham, who are unbeaten since the opening day.

For Liverpool however, Benteke could soon prove to be a £32.5m player who is closer to hindrance than hero.

Matt Stead