Paul Wilkes analyses whether the burly Belgium striker is likely to be more Morientes than Carroll at Anfield...
There's a sense of déjà vu at Anfield, with Liverpool selling a pacy forward for around £50m only to almost instantly spend just over £30m on a strong, aggressive striker. The sale of Raheem Sterling to Manchester City and subsequent purchase of Aston Villa's Christian Benteke naturally prompts memories of deadline day January 2011, when Fernando Torres was sold to Chelsea and Newcastle's Andy Carroll signed as a replacement.
It's easy to compare the transfers, but there's an important difference to that transaction almost half a decade ago. Unlike Carroll replacing Torres, Benteke isn't superseding Sterling; the Belgian has been acquired to improve on Fabio Borini, Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli's goal return of just four Premier League strikes between them, while Benteke netted 13 in a struggling Aston Villa side.
Benteke isn't Carroll v2.0
Although promising, Carroll was a far rawer player than Benteke when he arrived on Merseyside. Barely 22, the striker had experienced just six months of regular Premier League action and only one full season in the Championship. He had also been involved in several off-field incidents, some of which involved the police, and he was advised by then England manager Fabio Capello to “drink less”.
In comparison, Benteke – born the year after Carroll, he turns 25 in December – has never faced personal troubles of his own making. His father is a disciplinarian and when he talks about his family, there's humility and recognition of the sacrifices they have had to make.
"He’s strict on me because of life, because of my little brother and sister, because he has seen what can happen," admitted Benteke. The powerful forward was born in Zaire (now DR Congo), but his family fled the Mobutu regime and he now has 24 international caps for Belgium.
Although promising, Carroll was a far rawer player than Benteke when he arrived on Merseyside
There's some concern over Benteke's injury record, but he has made more than 30 outings in three of his last four seasons, whereas Carroll has managed this only twice in his entire career.
Both possess the capability to be devastating aerially and have the strength to bully opposition defenders, although they are different stylistically in a number of other ways.
Benteke suits Rodgers’ Liverpool
Benteke is more technically adroit with the ball than Carroll, able to dribble more and find his team-mates more easily with the ball. This is evidenced by Benteke's better technical stats than Carroll last season: more through-balls, a higher pass success rate, more successful dribbles, more key passes.
Through playing in a gifted Belgium side, Benteke is used to short, sharp pass interchanges, which means he will fit well with how the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino want to play.
The Stats Zone video below shows how, during Villa's win away at White Hart Lane last season, the Belgian hitman linked up play, constantly coming deep and pulling out wide to offer short passes and bring the midfield into the equation. This compares to the constant long balls sent forward to Caroll during the match at Swansea last term, with the former Newcastle frontman's impact on the game reduced as a result.
At Villa, Benteke developed a good understanding with Fabian Delph and Jack Grealish, and combining with the clever Brazilians has great potential for Liverpool. Carroll can bring other players into play too, but it is more often via a flicked header or chested knock-down, and seldom through passing on the floor. In fact, the Gateshead-born spearhead didn't even register a through-ball during the entire 2014/15 campaign.
My thinking was that, when you play with a target man, he becomes the focal point of your team, so everything has to be set up around the big guy
Brendan Rodgers was never going to make Carroll his main striker with Luis Suarez at the club. "My thinking was that, when you play with a targetman, he becomes the focal point of your team, so everything has to be set up around the big guy," Rodgers said before his team played West Ham in December 2013. “Sometimes you get sucked into doing it more direct, and clearly, with my history as a coach, I don’t work that way.”
The following match, Liverpool destroyed Tottenham with rapid counter-attacking football, as Rodgers began to shift his ideology.
His side were now getting the ball to Suarez and Daniel Sturridge as promptly as possible, with Steven Gerrard returning as a deep-lying playmaker in order to facilitate attacks through direct balls into the strikers. Despite that self-referenced “history”, Rodgers has become more pragmatic, and this will be even more evident during 2015/16 because now the Northern Irishman has to deliver results.
Sherwood’s wrong: Liverpool DO cross it
When he was still trying to persuade the Belgian to remain in the Midlands, manager Tim Sherwood questioned the logic of Liverpool's transfer committee in targeting Benteke. "We cross more balls into the box than any other club in the league and Christian has said that he feeds off crosses," said the Villa boss before the FA Cup final. "There’s no point going to a club where they don’t cross the ball."
Sherwood is wrong, on a number of counts. Over the entire 2014/15 campaign, Villa averaged 20 crosses per game (only six teams averaged fewer, West Ham topping the chart with 26). Liverpool weren’t far behind with 17, only three fewer per game than Villa, and with such a small differential Benteke could benefit from increased quality and accuracy rather than quantity and volume. While there's every chance Benteke might encourage Liverpool to cross more often, he should certainly help them threaten more from dead-ball situations. The Reds scored only six goals from set-pieces last term, compared with 26 in 2013/14.
Benteke not only offers a threat through his heading ability – since debuting in England, he has scored more headers (13) than any other player – but he can also strike a dead-ball with precision and power.
He’s not just a targetman, says God
When you consider Benteke has 49 goals in 101 appearances, it's a massive injustice to say that he relies solely on crosses. Only Suarez, Sergio Aguero and Robin van Persie have scored more goals in the Premier League since the Belgian’s arrival, which is remarkable given that he has spent the last three campaigns battling relegation. He also has admirers in high places. “In terms of all-round play – strength, speed, physicality, finishing – I think Benteke could be the main man for Liverpool," said Robbie Fowler.
"I’ve watched him a lot and he’s not just a targetman. He can hold the ball well and bring others into play, but he’s also mobile and keeps defenders on their toes." Although Benteke can't play in a variety of positions, he does exhibit tactical flexibility, being utilised in a variety of formations under Paul Lambert and Sherwood. He has shown that he's suited to leading the line on his own, with two wingers either side, or in tandem with a No.10 – and that he can create a useful partnership with a fast companion such as Gabby Agbonlahor, as he will hope to do with Sturridge when he returns from injury in September.