Liverpool have been the strangest of beasts from an attacking perspective this season; we’ve seen them light up stadiums with scintillating displays against tough opposition, but also flop—hard—when attempting to replicate these against “lesser” outfits. It’s made them thoroughly unpredictable: a joy to watch when clicking, but dire when out of sorts.
The inconsistencies span both team performances and individual showings. As a group they can flit from brilliant to bad, while Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke have flattered to deceive in between strong showings.
The reasoning for this is both complex and convoluted, but the fact each of the strikers at Jurgen Klopp’s disposal is so monumentally different is a key reason for the seismic difference in showings. How do you settle on a “way” of playing if you’re switching so frequently between a channel-runner, a deep-lying forward, a target man and one who can do it all?
Liverpool’s 3-3 draw against Arsenal on Wednesday displayed just how deadly they can be from an offensive standpoint, but the performance was not without its caveats. Specifically, it was a game in which Firmino shone because the system was tailored to him, but once Benteke had entered the fray, the Brazilian noticeably faded. It seems the two cannot coexist.
We've seen the Reds put in some incredible showings since Klopp was appointed, and the common theme conjoining them is the forwards that started the games.
When Firmino plays and is given the freedom to dictate up front, the attacking system clicks; the famous win over Manchester City, the impressive destruction of Chelsea, and this three-goal haul against Arsenal all started with him.
Philippe Coutinho was heavily involved against both City and Chelsea, while Adam Lallana was involved in all three. This trio appear to be Klopp’s Plan A and rightly so: When Firmino starts at centre-forward and these two creators flank him, Liverpool can look irresistible.
The performance against Arsenal—or at least the first 70 minutes—can be bottled and placed on the shelf marked "why Liverpool’s attack must run through Firmino." The Brazilian has been maddeningly inconsistent, but he has shown against the firmest of defences that he can cause fits.
Firmino possesses the movement qualities to excel as a withdrawn forward, and against the Gunners, he dropped deep to collect the ball, turn and run with it. The key is to get runners in beyond him when he drops in, stretching the pitch and giving the Brazilian room to turn. Lallana did this superbly on Wednesday night; even if his end-product continues to lack, he understands the runs he has to make to allow the system to work.
James Milner has been a factor, too, though less impactful, and Jordon Ibe’s speed can be utilised over the top.
As long as Firmino has at least two players willing to run beyond his line when he drops in, Klopp’s high-energy, dynamic attack can function. Central midfielders breaking forward between the lines and getting ahead of the ball can grease the gears, and both Emre Can and Jordan Henderson are extremely capable in this area.
Daniel Sturridge, a man of considerable and varied talents, is the most complete striker in the squad and can also replicate Firmino’s role if asked. Once he dusts off the cobwebs upon returning from injury, Klopp will have two players capable of playing as a withdrawn forward, therefore validating the use of this system on a consistent basis.
But this leaves an odd man out, and that man goes by the name of Benteke. The £32.5 million signing has predictably struggled to slot into the Reds’ way of playing—his performances at Aston Villa were brilliant, but his limitations were clear even then—and cuts a polarising figure on the pitch whenever he enters the fray.
It’s difficult to gauge him, as despite the fact he is, unequivocally, a square peg in a round hole, he comes up with game-defining moments on a reasonably consistent basis. In December, he scored two consecutive winning goals despite playing poorly in every other area, and against Arsenal, he won the knock-down for Joe Allen’s volleyed equaliser, permeating an otherwise directionless, timid showing.
If he were simply a Plan-B option reserved for rescue missions, that would suit Klopp, but the fact he cost so much money means he cannot be confined to such a limited role. If you spent £32.5 million on a player, he should be integral to what you do—inflated transfer market or not.
Firmino’s electric showing and two-goal haul on Wednesday added another notch to the Brazilian’s bow in the fight for playing time, whereas Benteke’s currently needs a new string.
As Firmino continues to settle and put in defining performances, Benteke will be pushed further and further to the side.
Ibe does nothing wrong there. pic.twitter.com/a85FixpV2K— Sam McGuire (@SamMcGuire90) January 13, 2016
Ultimately, all of the summer concerns over Benteke’s inability to mesh with Liverpool’s players have rung true. His movement isn't good, his timing and picking of runs is poor, and while mobile for a target man, he cannot play the role Firmino and Sturridge can in this roving, fluid system.
On Firmino's performance against Arsenal, Klopp told reporters (h/t Goal): "I could talk about this for half an hour, but to be honest I think it should be normal because I know how good he is." Contrast this with Benteke's admission that he's been asked to run more by his manager, per BBC Sport, and the picture begins to crystalise.
As Firmino’s grip on this Liverpool side tightens, Benteke’s continues to slip away. The board will be extremely reluctant to do it, but Klopp may well turn around inside the next year and ask for the Belgium international to be sold to fund new signings.
Another major financial loss on a transfer looms.