Christian Benteke & Liverpool: Embryonic promise

Liverpool weren’t particularly fluid at Stoke yesterday, but there were hints of what they might be capable of in the coming months.

That’s really what an opening game should be, because this early in the season teams very rarely have a full set of working combinations and so, inevitably, a slightly disjointed feel is to be expected.  Still, proportional opinions and football don’t usually mix, so today will be filled with over-analysis and over-statement.

Philippe Coutinho’s wonderful late goal was worthy of taking the points but, because everybody is well aware of the threat posed by the Brazilian from that kind of range, it’s not a particularly novel discussion.

Instead, Christian Benteke…

The Belgian’s competitive debut was relatively uneventful and those who want to claim that Liverpool have overpaid for the forward will jump on the opportunity the point out the lack of threat he posed.  That, though, is to miss the point: Benteke produced enough yesterday to show why Brendan Rodgers signed him and also what he will likely bring to this side.

Most obvious, was his aerial contribution - shown below (via Squawka):

Green = Successful / Red = Unsuccessful

Benteke is an outlet for a more direct style of play and he gives Liverpool the option of moving from back-to-front quickly and effectively.  Stoke are a big side who are very accomplished, even in the post-Pulis era, at coping with long-balls into their own half, so the above is contextually impressive return.

While most assume that Benteke is just a focal point, however, his real value in the build-up phases is in what he does when the ball is played to his feet.  Not only is he very accomplished at retaining possession whilst under defensive pressure, but his awareness and technique are proficient enough to play his teammates into the space that those attending defenders have vacated.  He isn’t just a rebound board, he’s actually quite creative - and sometimes subtle - with his distribution.

Yesterday didn’t showcase that properly but, given that there isn’t yet a lot of chemistry between him and his surrounding teammates, that was to be anticipated.  Once Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana, Jordon Ibe et al have adjusted to Benteke’s traits and habits and Brendan Rodgers has settled on a definitive plan for how to use him, Benteke’s play-stitching value will be apparent to everyone.

Within the graphic, which shows his passing contribution, there are a lot of short range passes and maybe not enough instances in which he was able to properly switch the focus of attacks.  To do that, however, he requires players to make anticipatory runs and for them to understand not only how he wants to use the ball but also what he’s likely to do once he releases it.

That will happen with time.  His completion rate was 58% at the Britannia Stadium, but expect that to have risen into the high 60s by October or November.

No, there were no goals yesterday and no attention-drawing highlight moments, but the value in Benteke for the moment is in the finer detail: notice how well he receives the ball and appreciate the range of options he provides to his supporting playmakers.

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