Aston Villa: Assessing the Impact of Christian Benteke's Injury

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Aston Villa: Assessing the Impact of Christian Benteke's Injury
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The shocking news that Christian Benteke had suffered a season-ending rupture of his Achilles tendon on Thursday rocked Aston Villa's world.

The injury will keep the striker off the pitch for six months, preventing Benteke from making his World Cup debut for Belgium this summer.

Benteke now joins the likes of Jores Okore, Libor Kozak and Charles N'Zogbia as Villa players to lose a significant amount of time to injuries. The injury, coupled with Villa's third consecutive loss to Fulham over the weekend, has capped off a complete shift in the spirits of the Villa fans.

Before Villa's losing streak, the atmosphere surrounding Villa Park had been invigorated by a run of good form. Home wins against Norwich and Chelsea had set Villa well clear of the relegation zone and shown signs of much-desired progress made by Paul Lambert's team.

While Villa are still seven points clear of the relegation zone, the team's performances on the pitch have become increasingly inconsistent. Benteke's injury will only serve to compound this issue by forcing Villa to completely adjust their attack in the absence of the Belgian.

Villa's offensive approach this season can be summed in to two distinct styles: hitting the opponent quickly on the break and playing off of long balls toward the aerially dominant Benteke.

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Losing Benteke largely invalidates both strategies. Benteke's most likely replacement, Grant Holt, does not possess the pace to play on the break. Villa's other forwards, Gabby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann, can effectively counter but are much less dangerous without Benteke alongside them.

Holt will not be able to mimic Benteke's aerial dominance either. The on-loan striker is a physical player with good height, but Benteke's ball-winning skills are unmatched. 

According to WhoScored.com, Benteke's average of 8.8 aerial duals won per game leads the Premier League. Additionally, Peter Crouch is the only other Premier League player to average more than five aerial duals won per game, showing Benteke's commanding ability in the air and Villa's reliance upon it.

This will force Lambert to adjust his tactics to accommodate a more patient style of play, an approach Villa have struggled with in this term, as the loss to Fulham on Saturday demonstrated.

Without regular starters Benteke, Agbonlahor, Fabian Delph or Karim El Ahmadi, Villa were disjointed in attack and dropped a crucial three points to a team currently sitting in the relegation zone.

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The unimpressive team Lambert fielded on Saturday was largely necessitated by Villa's laundry list of injuries, but it brings to question how Lambert will line up without Benteke. The aforementioned Holt could slot in for the Belgian, but Holt is unlikely to return next season and is not a long-term solution for Villa.

Lambert may be better off evaluating Agbonlahor and Weimann as a partnership. The two have routinely played in support of Benteke, and assessing the duo as a pair of central strikers will give Lambert a long-term option to consider rather than the stopgap solution that Holt represents. 

In a like manner, Benteke's injury may be a golden opportunity for some of Villa's young strikers who have not had many chances to prove themselves. Jordan Bowery, Nicklas Helenius and Callum Robinson will all be dying to step in for the sidelined Benteke.

Bowery, in his two anonymous years at the club, has largely featured as a substitute and has never had an opportunity to play as the focal point of attack. Similarly, Helenius has rarely featured in his first year at Villa Park and will be eager for the chance to impress.

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Robinson, a 19-year-old product of Villa's youth academy, is the least proven of the trio but would greatly benefit from match time. All three players represent unproven but valuable commodities, and there may not be a better time to judge their potential than now.

Finally, there is a silver lining to Benteke's injury. The six-month layoff for the striker will conveniently prevent discussions of selling the Belgian over the summer. Rather than endure a lengthy transfer saga that could last until deadline day, Lambert knows Benteke will eventually return in a Villa shirt.

Instead, Lambert has the ability to fully focus his summer on improving upon Villa's current weaknesses. Villa can address their need for a creative midfielder and defensive reinforcements without needing to suddenly replace Benteke as well.

Most of all, it is a shame that Benteke will be robbed of an opportunity to play in Brazil this summer. Doing so would have provided him tremendous experience against world-class opponents while also having the potential to further augment his transfer value with a strong performance for Belgium.

Instead, Villa are left pondering life without the big Belgian. When Benteke does finally return during the 2014-15 season, it will be fascinating to analyze how his absence has impacted Villa's tactics, personnel decisions and final standing in the Premier League. 

As unlikely as it is, a monumental collapse from Villa, as well as an impressive resurgence by a current bottom-dweller, could just see Lambert's team relegated.

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