Beefing Up and Bullying: Benteke To LFC

Beefing Up and Bullying: Benteke To LFC
July 19, 2015 Paul Tomkins

By Paul Tomkins (5’10”).

Philippe Coutinho is 5’7”.

Nathaniel Clyne is 5’9”.

Roberto Firmino is 5’11.

Alberto Moreno is 5’7”.

James Milner is 5’9”.

Jordon Ibe is 5’9”.

Joe Allen is 5’6”.

Lucas Leiva is 5’10.

Danny Ings is 5’10”.

Lazar Markovic is 5’9”.

Adam Lallana is 5’8”.

João Carlos Teixeira is 5’10”.

From the above list, the first five names are perhaps the most likely starters for Liverpool this coming season. But it’s not unthinkable that two or three of the others could play, too. Certainly in times of certain injuries it could easily be seven or eight selected from this collective. On top of this, a few of Liverpool’s younger defensive (and central midfield) back-ups also stand below six-feet.

Half of the squad is arguably of below average height. That said, I don’t know the average height for footballers, although for UK men it’s 5’9 or 5’10”. Presumably it’s a fair bit higher for footballers, as height – up to a point – is an advantage (you get men who are 5’4”, yet how many play football?); and also, as people in developed countries continue to grow taller, younger men – in their 20s – will be taller than older generations, whose inclusion brings down the average height. (And of course, there’s the issue of shrinkage. But it was cold.)

Liverpool have two big, strong centre-backs in Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho, with Dejan Lovren, for all his faults last season, a physically imposing type, if he remains third-choice. Hopefully Tiago Ilori – tall, super-quick, but slight – will usurp the ageing Kolo Toure, who has presumably been kept on to be a wise head in the dressing room (as one of a tiny number of 30-somethings in the squad). In the centre of midfield, Emre Can and Jordan Henderson – two big, strong young men – will be joined by James Milner, who is hardy, but far from tall. However, neither of the other two main options, Lucas and Allen, are what you’d term ‘big units’.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with smaller players; indeed, I wince at the youth football I experienced in the 1980s, where size seemed to be paramount, in an era where English football had the direct football of Watford and Wimbledon. And there’s no one better in the world than the minuscule Lionel Messi, just as there wasn’t 30 years ago, when Diego Maradona was the best around (although his strength was phenomenal). Equally, who wouldn’t want Javier Mascherano in their side? – you can be the one to tell him “Sorry, chief, you’re too small for me”.

But if your team has tall athletes who can also play with some panache, I’d guess the odds are stacked in your favour. Unless your smaller players are prodigious leapers (like Tim Cahill), then you can easily lose out on set-pieces, where roughly a third of all goals are scored.

While Manchester City won two of the past four titles on the back of immense spending, they also did so with the aforementioned Milner as part of side that also contained David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Pablo Zabaleta and Samir Nasri. And yet without the brute force of Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure they usually seemed relatively meek, and far more beatable (although if any Man City fans think this conclusion is wrong, I’ll stand corrected; to an outsider it certainly looked that way).

I can only really think of the Barcelona of Pep Guardiola, with their twin exceptions of Pique and Busquets, as a club who fielded almost exclusively diminutive XIs and succeeded. But obviously they were the best technical team in the world; from another planet. Liverpool aren’t going to match that; they have some of the best technical players in the Premier League (Coutinho and Firmino in particular), but neither is (yet) in the ballpark of players like Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, and probably never will be. (Interestingly, Barca, having lost their way a little, got a bit more physical last season, including the addition of Luis Suarez, who, at just under 6 feet, is a bigger forward than Messi, Neymar and Pedro.)

Set-Pieces

I think it’s fair to say that the Premier League remains different from other major European leagues, as a fair proportion of teams still focus on physicality and set-pieces; other countries have long-ball teams of a kind, but I’m not sure the continentals ever produce anything like Tony Pulis’ Stoke. Two seasons ago Liverpool excelled when attacking with set-pieces (Martin Skrtel scored seven league goals, more than reliable-aerial-threat Sami Hyypia ever managed in a single campaign), but last season the Reds were poor at both ends. At times, certainly once Steven Gerrard lost his confidence, it felt like corners were just being flung into a certain area. Perhaps the drop in quality was also as a result of reduced training-ground time.

Before the start of 2014/15, Andrew Beasley warning Reds in TTT’s comments section to expect fewer set-piece goals; the usual season-on-season swing was about three either way in terms of such goals, and the league average was a +/- change of between three and five; whereas in 2013/14 the team produced a phenomenal swing of +13 – something that was hard to sustain. (Under David Moyes, Manchester United were the other outlier, with a swing of -12.)

My sense is that while no fan wants Liverpool to be a set-piece team – in that we wouldn’t want it to be the Reds’ primary aim – it’s also fairly futile to play great football and win lots of corners, only to see them headed clear because you can’t compete aerially; or to play great football and score two wonderful goals, just to concede three at the other end. And yet at times this perhaps typified Rodgers’ Liverpool: nice football, soft goals conceded.

The Reds’ new coach Gary McAllister took the best near-post corners I’ve ever seen; a real unique art in gently lofting the ball to an exact spot, from where any kind of flick caused mayhem. In Spain, Atletico Madrid challenged, and in 2013/14 eclipsed, the much bigger spenders in part by being an outstanding set-piece side. In Denmark, FC Midtjylland won their first ever title, with some thanks to a specialist set-piece coach. And even Man United’s main weapon last season, in amongst a team of superstars and with a Dutch manager schooled at Ajax and Barcelona, was often the head of Marouane Fellaini. (United have also added two further six-footers in midfield this summer.)

Ideally, your team plays good football, and then when it wins set-pieces (if it hasn’t scored from the good football itself, which is the primary aim) it turns that domination into goals. Two headers scored from corners in the first pre-season game perhaps hints at more to come, although come August the opposition will definitely be better, and probably bigger; while Sakho head a great header cleared off the line in the second friendly.

Daniel Sturridge is deceptively tall (in that I don’t think everyone realises he’s 6’2”, and scores with quite a lot of headers), and Divock Origi (6’1”) looks a powerful unit, with an excellent all-round game. But neither is a brute, capable of bullying defenders. They’re runners with and without the ball, who can work the channels, like other 6’1”+ strikers Liverpool have had in the past 20 years (Torres, Collymore); none are/were traditional target-men who play with their back to goal. Mario Balotelli is another with all the physical attributes, but if anything, often plays like a midfielder.

Torres was almost the complete package, but he was ‘only’ 6’1” – and though he could head the ball, being dominant in the air, or playing with his back to goal, weren’t his main strengths. The more traditional target-men the Reds have had – Crouch, Carroll, Lambert – have tended to lack pace and/or physicality. They could play with their back to goal, but couldn’t run in behind.

The only one to have it all – pace, strength and height – was Emile Heskey; and yet one season aside, he was not a goalscorer, and only occasionally made use of his incredible power. (Several people on Twitter told me that Heskey was slow! In his pomp he was one of the fastest players I’ve seen in the flesh – albeit over longer rather than the shorter distances that someone like Michael Owen thrived with.)

Add Benteke to a side containing Sakho, Skrtel, Henderson and Can, and there could be a really tall, physically strong spine, to compensate for a lack of height in both full-back positions, one central midfield position (if Milner is a regular) and perhaps both wide-midfield/winger positions too.

(As an aside here, although Clyne and Moreno appear to be the first-choice full-backs, the prodigious 18-year-old Joe Gomez, at 6’2”, offers an option on either flank. Like all young centre-backs – apart from the Slow Giants who can’t turn quickly he enough – he may spend the first half of his senior career at full-back, where mistakes are less costly and inexperience doesn’t hurt quite so much. These players tend to play centre-back at youth/reserve/international U21 level, but only full-back in their club’s first team – and then maybe, like Jamie Carragher, move back to the centre when they’re more commanding. Of all the youngsters who break into first teams, fewest seem to play centre-back. Someone like Raphael Varane is a rare exception to the rule.)

The option of Benteke would certainly allow Rodgers to pose different kinds of threats to opposition managers. He inherited Andy Carroll, but there were various issues there, and he bought Rickie Lambert, but Lambert’s lack of pace (allied to some nerves) stopped him being an effective Plan A, B or whatever was intended.

By contrast, Benteke genuinely reminds me of Didier Drogba, in that he has the pace to go with the height and the power. He also strikes a ball nicely, and like the Ivorian, can score a direct free-kick (which isn’t true of most big strikers).

Drogba at his best was on a different level to anything we’ve seen from Benteke yet, but the age of 24 Drogba was at unfashionable French club Guingamp, having recently cost a paltry £80,000 from 2nd-tier Le Mans. He quickly moved to Marseilles, where he suddenly looked like an absolute beast (including against Liverpool in Europe), and then, aged 26, moved to Chelsea. Given that Benteke already has 86 club goals, then he’s well ahead at the same stage of their respective careers. This doesn’t mean that Benteke is on the same pre-set trajectory, but it shows what’s possible, with one of this league’s best-ever all-round centre-forwards looking unremarkable at 23. (Just as it bodes well that Divock Origi has a better record in French football at 20 than Thierry Henry, it likewise doesn’t mean he automatically becomes as sublime.)

Benteke’s former Belgium manager Georges Leekens told This Is Anfield: “He can play with his back to goal, has great control and he’s very fast. He’s good in the air but is actually better suited to having the ball played on the floor.”

At 24, Benteke is probably at just the right age for a big striker; plenty left in the tank, but getting wiser with regard to utilising that physical advantage. Look at Peter Crouch’s goalscoring record (and the divisions he was playing in) prior to the age of 24 and after it, and it’s like night and day. He was never an elite scorer (except, weirdly, at international level), but he became effective as he reached his mid-20s. And unlike Benteke, he had no pace to call upon. Jan Koller only became effective around the age of 23, and despite scoring 55 goals for the Czech Republic, didn’t even make his international debut until the age of 26. Niall Quinn only became effective at the age of 24, more than doubling his previous season-best goal tally in 1990/91. Another 6’4” player, Olivier Giroud, didn’t play above the French second division until he was 24, and Arsenal moved for him aged 26, after his second top-tier season. While you get some smaller strikers who are also late bloomers, the bigger ones tend to take longer to thrive.

I hoped that Andy Carroll would take the same path, but injuries, and what (from the outside) look like unprofessional habits have stunted his development. He also had a record price tag, which was fairly ludicrous for a man with one international cap and one good Premier League season (£50.5m after TPI inflation – that’s how fast Premier League prices are rising, in no small part to a 70% hike in TV revenue). Unlike the Belgian, Carroll wasn’t the quickest, and seemed to want crosses at almost all costs, whereas Benteke is used to more variety in how he’s supplied.

Aside from his warrior mentality, Drogba was so good because he could also run in behind defences; if they dropped deep to give him less space, then he was able to win the ball in the air in the area. So just one player could confuse a defence as to the best line to hold. He was also excellent at letting the smaller, nippier players buzz around him. Aston Villa seemed a bit more like this under the more gung-ho Tim Sherwood, rather than the rigid Paul Lambert.

It was suggested to me that Mario Balotelli could also have provided this option to the Reds, but he had to be seriously cajoled into running behind teams – it just wasn’t his natural game; he has always preferred linking from deep, and doesn’t work well as a lone striker.

Perhaps Balotelli’s transfer would have looked different had Sturridge stayed fit – the pair promised so much in the early game at Spurs – but the Italian, like it or not, remains a sideshow. And by the end of last season the Reds had three sideshows: the Balotelli circus; the waning powers of Steven Gerrard and the constant attention to his imminent departure; and the weekly nonsense surrounding Raheem Sterling. When such distractions mount up it becomes unhelpful, and irrespective of the team suffering, the individual form of all three players wilted as a result. It just looked messy.

Also, the Italian – a fine natural talent, who I felt did quite well in fits and starts last season – apparently has zero intensity in his training. As such, I sense preparations for games would be undermined; we all know how hard it is to study in a class that contains disruptive pupils (although at times I was the latter), so I assume that this would have been little different. By contrast, you can imagine training being a whole different ballgame with Luis Suarez there. It doesn’t have to be deathly serious at Melwood, but the approach needs to be right.

Too many managers have felt Balotelli to be a rotten egg (or a bad apple, who possibly also rocks the applecart), and too many teams have lost intensity when accommodating him, for it to be ignored. He’s not a bad person – far from it, in fact – but he does appear to be a bad professional.

Another thing to note is that Liverpool have lost their best penalty taker (Gerrard), and the next two best ones, Lambert and Balotelli, are also likely to leave, or be peripheral at best. Benteke has scored six of his eight Premier League penalties, which is a fraction above the average of c.70%. While Benteke hasn’t boosted his tally with tons of penalties, he’s shown that he can at least take one. Jordan Henderson may take the role to start with, but if he misses a few it will need others to step up.

Added Bite

While I think some of the other purchases from 2014 will probably come good this season (it often happens in the second season), there seems to be a bit more bite and aggression about the purchases of 2015. Even Firmino is more of a street-fighter Latino (akin to Suarez and Tevez) than a delicate Brazilian flouncer.

Gomez, as noted, is a 6’2” 18-year-old. Milner, though not tall, is strong. Firmino is fairly tall, and certainly tough. Ings is short, but incredibly solid; the same is true of Clyne. And Origi, tall and fast, finally arrives.

But Benteke would be the most obvious physical ‘rock’.

With the right service (and that mostly means variety), and if the manager is eager to work with the player (which I assume to be the case), then purchasing Benteke makes a lot of sense. His mentality has been questioned at times, and that’s not something I can accurately assess, other than to note that he’s had a pretty consistent career in front of goal, not always in the easiest of circumstances.

Critically for me, he moved to a big league at the age of 21. That takes some doing, when some struggle to even leave their hometown. So that makes me less nervous about this move; but a fairly hefty (if not record-breaking) fee can weigh anyone down, and the pressure at Liverpool is different. And as I frequently note, a change of environment can destabilise a player – particularly those who thrive in a certain comfort zone (not a comfort zone relating to coasting, and not being challenged, but in terms of needing regular football, and/or reassurance, and/or certain teammates alongside them).

I’m not simply trying to justify the player because he’s joining Liverpool. When there were rumblings about him going to Man United my response was not “phew, dodged a bullet”, but “shit, he’ll be a real handful for them”.

Defences can be panicked by his mere presence, particularly if there are quick, skilful players running off from from left, right and deeper-centre. In theory it makes more sense than what we saw for parts of last season.

In a few of their early games up front together I thought Sterling and Coutinho combined (and pressed) very well, but after a while the team looked seriously deficient in physicality, and easily bullied; especially if Lallana and Markovic were in the mix, too. The skill was there from all four, but the street-smarts and the battling were not. Benteke doesn’t have the warrior-menace that Suarez provided, but he offers a different kind of intimidation.

It’s easy to cut and paste people into the past, as if hindsight solves everything, but if they’d had Benteke up front, my sense is that Liverpool would have won a lot more points in 2014/15.

If the deal goes through, I certainly hope that will be the case for 2015/16.

Benteke

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