Making the big-money move from Aston Villa to Liverpool last summer, Christian Benteke arrived on Merseyside atop a wave of anticipation from Reds supporters and the rest of the Premier League—but almost seven months into his Anfield career, the Belgian has been largely disappointing.
The 25-year-old was ostensibly signed to address Liverpool's goalscoring woes from 2014/15, in which only two players—Steven Gerrard (13) and Raheem Sterling (11), who have both since left the club—scored over 10 goals in all competitions, but so far he has failed to do so.
This season, Benteke has scored seven goals in 30 games for the Reds, and while he is Liverpool's top scorer in 2015/16, as first-choice striker for much of the campaign, this is a worryingly paltry record.
Benteke is now behind Roberto Firmino in Jurgen Klopp's centre-forward ranks, and with both Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi returning from injury to play a part in Tuesday night's 2-1 FA Cup fourth-round replay defeat to West Ham United, he could slide further down the pecking order this month.
The striker has also made just one appearance for Belgium since making the move to Liverpool, appearing for 45 minutes in September's 1-0 win in Cyprus, while he was an unused substitute in November's 3-1 win at home to Italy.
Liverpool take on Remi Garde's struggling Villans on Sunday afternoon, and it remains to be seen whether Benteke will even feature.
So on his return to Villa Park, why has Benteke been so disappointing since leaving Villa in July? And could this downturn in form prompt a swift exit from Merseyside at the end of the season?
Benteke at Villa
Benteke joined Villa from Belgian side Genk in 2012, as part of a creative recruitment drive by then-manager Paul Lambert.
Lambert brought in a number of young or inexperienced signings, with the Scot, remarkably, forced to defend his approach to the transfer market shortly after the striker's arrival, as reported by the Guardian's Stuart James:
Every player you bring in, you are hoping they will do it for you. But I know from experience if you don't have the hunger as a footballer, there's no point playing the game.
You need that enthusiasm, so we will see how it goes. I know from experience, when you get really hungry players they can take you a long way, that's what we will try to do. I have a great belief that the young lads can do it. I have no trepidation that they won't do it. None whatsoever.
How do you know that they are not good enough? You won't know until you give them that opportunity.
Though the likes of Matthew Lowton, Joe Bennett, Brett Holman and Karim El Ahmadi struggled to establish themselves in the Premier League in the long term, Benteke was an unquestionable success, proving to be a bargain, under-the-radar signing at around £7 million.
He went on to score 19 goals in 34 Premier League appearances in 2012/13, as the former Scotland international steered Villa away from relegation.
Lambert established Benteke as the focal point of Villa's attack, and while the manager was eventually replaced by Tim Sherwood midway through the 2014/15 campaign, he remained in this central, target-man role under the ex-Blackburn Rovers midfielder.
Both Lambert and Sherwood tailored their side's style of play around Benteke's strengths, and they enjoyed considerable success when the Belgian was on the field. The forward scored 49 goals in 101 appearances for the club, assisting on a further 12, setting up a big-money move to Merseyside.
But what saw Benteke thrive at Villa Park set him up for a fall at Anfield.
Failure to Adjust
With Liverpool circling as the 2014/15 season came to a close, Sherwood looked to defend his prized asset, questioning whether a move to join Brendan Rodgers' side would suit his strengths, per the Guardian's Daniel Taylor:
We cross more balls into the box than any other club in the league and Christian has said that he feeds off crosses.
There’s no point going to a club where they don’t cross the ball. All he’s got to do is look at history and see what has happened to players who have left other clubs.
They’re going to pastures new, bigger and better clubs, and they don’t actually play, so then they end up looking for a new home again.
This was a notion Benteke refuted, per the Mirror's David Maddock shortly after his move to Liverpool, saying that "football has changed and football now is modern and I can adapt."
"If Liverpool bought me, then they know how to use me," he later added, and per the club's official website, Rodgers underlined his faith in the striker and his ability to adapt to life at Liverpool, describing Benteke as "the type of player that fits perfectly for us."
But as Rodgers continued to highlight his strengths, the Ulsterman's view of the striker jars with the player Liverpool supporters have grown frustrated with so far in 2015/16:
He can play in any type of game, you see his qualities. He’s 6ft4 and of course when you’re that big and strong and you see how he takes in the ball, and he can play the power game and strength game.
But I think what will surprise a lot of people is the quality of his football. His movement is really clever, he can penetrate the space in behind, he can link the game up. We have seen already, particularly close-hand, the type of movements and different types of goals that he scores.
He’s going to be a huge player for us and, at 24, still has a lot of developments to make.
Particularly troubling is Rodgers' assertion that Benteke is able to penetrate defences with his movement, as has been evident during his time with the club to date, he is far from the off-the-shoulder No. 9 that Liverpool desperately need.
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"He's making schoolboy runs!" @IanWright0 criticises the performance of @LFC striker @chrisbenteke. #EmiratesFACup https://t.co/8qWpOZ0mYZ2/9/2016, 8:48:41 PM
During Tuesday night's 2-1 defeat to West Ham, Benteke was roundly criticised for his poor movement by former Hammers and Arsenal striker Ian Wright, who labelled his runs as "schoolboy" while analysing the game for BT Sport.
This is a well-placed criticism as, of players to make 10 or more appearances in the Premier League this season, only six have been caught offside more times per 90 minutes than Benteke (1.2).
Benteke currently finds himself at odds with the demands of Klopp's attacking system, vindicating Sherwood's assertion—but whether he should have been expected to adapt to a completely different style of play is another matter entirely.
It can be argued that Benteke was doomed to failure, with Rodgers seemingly oblivious to the breed of striker he was signing.
Poor Fit for Liverpool
With Klopp having arrived three months into Benteke's Liverpool career, the No. 9 has experienced a downturn in fortunes, with the German seemingly taking exception to the striker's lack of work rate in leading the line, per the Liverpool Echo's Ian Doyle in January.
"We saw a lot of games he played in, saving the ball, technical skills, of course the heading but not only that, finishing skills, all this stuff," he said, explaining his interest in Benteke from his time as Borussia Dortmund manager.
"From all those things he is a complete striker but at the end you have to work for it."
Benteke's last league start for Liverpool came away to West Ham at the beginning of January, and having failed to score in his past 11 appearances—including 180 minutes over two games against League Two side Exeter City in the FA Cup—he currently looks far from the "complete striker."
A profligate display away to the Hammers on Tuesday night underlined a striker with a supreme lack of confidence, but as a manager sensitive to his players' mentality, Klopp saw fit to praise the Belgian, speaking to reporters and the club's official website after the game:
Ask 80 to 90 percent of all strikers in the world—high-quality, low-quality, no-quality—they will tell you they’ve had times like this.
It’s like it is and you have to carry on. You have to go on, there’s no other situation. All the people in the world want the easy goal, but then the easy goal doesn’t help, so you have to play, you have to improve, you have to want to do all the things—that’s how it always is. It’s no different for Christian.
But tonight, it was a really good game without the maximum finish, but he did a lot, he worked a lot, so it was a big step—that’s good for us and that’s good for him.
This suggests that, to Klopp, Benteke's lack of form is a mere blip, and that he will work himself to the level that Rodgers believed he could in time. But on this season's evidence, this is highly unlikely.
Stylistically, Benteke is just not suited to life at Liverpool, and this has seemingly affected his confidence significantly.
Klopp's comments suggest he has faith in Liverpool's £32.5 million man, but with Firmino, Sturridge and Origi competing for the role as first-choice striker ahead of Benteke, whether the Reds can afford to hold onto him as a peripheral figure beyond the summer is questionable.
It may be wise for Liverpool to cut their losses, admit their mistake, and move Benteke on at the end of the season—it could prove to be a benefit to the 25-year-old, as he has the quality to thrive elsewhere.
Statistics via Transfermarkt.co.uk.
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