If there were any doubts over Christian Benteke’s ability to transition his superlative form for Aston Villa to a bigger club, they were obliterated last Saturday when the Liverpool striker leapt above the Manchester United defence and twisted his body in the air to acrobatically launch a rocket into David De Gea’s net. Forget Wayne Rooney’s wonderstrike against Manchester City; this was the best bicycle kick in English football since Trevor Sinclair’s legendary FA Cup effort against Barnsley way back in 1997.
Yet, it was a rare moment of pedigree-proving individual brilliance in an otherwise frustrating afternoon and season thus far for the Belgian battering ram, whose imperious, bullish and lofty 6 foot 3 frame is still yet to be truly taken advantage of by Brendan Rodgers and his boys.
The 3-1 defeat was certainly an off day for Liverpool, who recorded just four shots on target and five created chances for all their huff and puff, but Benteke’s limited service was symptomatic of the lukewarm start to his Liverpool career and the philosophical ambiguity his £32.5million arrival has caused.
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Although there are signs that Liverpool have begun to remodel their game around the 24-year-old’s more attritional strengths, the Reds’ formation prevented them from getting the best out of him on Saturday and the evidence overall suggests they’re still coming to terms with a first-and-foremost target man leading their line – compared to the poacher-esque styles of Daniel Sturridge, Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling they’ve become accustomed to.
In decisive contrast to the ‘death by football’ sound-bite which has stuck with the Anfield boss, average possession of his sides has steadily declined every season since first arriving in the Premier League with Swansea City in 2011. From 57.7% during his debut campaign in the top flight, it had plummeted to an all-time low of 51.1% before the Old Trafford visit last weekend.
That suggests Liverpool are getting the ball forward quicker and more directly. But they’re still the least prolific crossers in the Premier League, ranked joint-bottom with Stoke City in that regard on 15 per-match, and executing the fourth-least long balls of any side in the division. Their 54 against United was just one greater than their season average, and surprisingly three less than last term’s.
Of course, stats can be misleading and the general consensus is that Liverpool are attempting to play in a manner that will better suit Benteke, varying between the tiki-taka-inspired chance creation of prior campaigns and a more direct, typically English approach to their passing game. Likewise, he’s by no means a one-tricky pony in the same manner as Andy Carroll; although power and height are the former Genk youngster’s most obvious traits, he possesses two good feet, rare mobility for a player of such monolithic frame and a great footballing brain – as the bicycle kick on Saturday demonstrated.
Yet, the 4-3-3 formation Rodgers has insisted upon this season remains counter-productive, the attacking midfielders rather than touchline-hugging wingers either side of the Belgium international failing to provide the required service from out wide and leaving him an isolated figure in the final third.
This was particularly evident on Saturday as Benteke recorded the third-fewest touches of any outfield player – only worsened by Juan Mata and Danny Ings who were both subbed off early – including just three in the final third and none in the penalty box during the first 45 minutes. Ings’ inclusion in the starting Xi insinuated a front two, an old-school yet undoubtedly accommodating set-up for the ex-Villain, but the 23-year-old was surprising more part of the midfield than the attack and didn’t provide the expected support.
It’s an intrinsic flaw which resonates throughout the Anfield squad. With the exception of the inexperienced Jordan Ibe and the versatile James Milner, who now has his heart almost exclusively set on central midfield, Liverpool lack genuine wide players; those who have made a career out of stretching defences, lethal deliveries and arriving at the back post with immaculate timing.
So where can Liverpool go from here? The prevailing theory is a return to the diamond formation that proved so effective during their runner-up 2013/14 campaign. It won’t create natural width but it will hopefully end Benteke’s eternal isolation in the final third, with an accomplice making runs beyond and either side of him.
Whether that becomes Rodgers’ go-to plan B after an underwhelming start to the campaign remains to be seen. But for Liverpool to improve upon their current 10th place and Benteke to better his two-in-five return, clearly the Reds’ structure and shape in the final third must change to accommodate the most expensive signing of Rodgers’ Anfield reign.