Comment: Benteke will determine Brendan Rodgers' fate at Liverpool
It’s easy to evoke the image of Andy Carroll when discussing why Liverpool have signed Christian Benteke.
Like Carroll, Benteke is tall. He also good in the air, plays up front and is costing Liverpool in excess of £30million. Benteke may as well have a Geordie accent. Get that ‘separated at birth’ feature on standby.
Except the fact Benteke can run. Pretty fast. Which is a big difference. He is also capable of playing up front on his own and is more technically proficient than Carroll. In stark contrast to the West Ham striker, prior to his big money move to Anfield Benteke has a track record of scoring regularly in the Premier League rather than the Championship.
Benteke can also dribble, close down defenders and is an established international footballer – something Carroll was intended to become but has never managed due to persistent injury setbacks. We’ll take a wild stab in the dark and predict Benteke will arrive at Anfield in a more desirable state of health and fitness than Carroll in 2011.
In fact, compile a list of Carroll’s and Benteke’s assets upon their signing for Liverpool and beyond the 'being tall' bit, 'heading the ball' bit, the 'playing up front' bit and the 'costing a lot of money' bit, and you might conclude they are nothing like each other (presumably no photographs will appear on social media showing the Villa striker scouting Merseyside nightspots with Kevin Nolan).
Despite that, you can understand the scepticism when assessing any major Liverpool investment. Such are the suspicions after an inauspicious few decades in the transfer market, there is a tendency to focus on reasons why a deal will fail rather than succeed. This summer’s purchases are not just about correcting previous errors, but the reputation management of the recruiters.
Before this pre-season, Liverpool signed 23 players in the Brendan Rodgers era at a cost in excess of £200million. Going into this campaign, 13 of those have either gone or are in the process of having daily hints about where the exit gate is. Plenty of the remaining 10, meanwhile, have doubts as to how often they’ll play this season.
Each time a signing is made, the question of how much the manager wanted the player has been raised, neatly dividing those who don’t like Rodgers (he wanted all the players, say those preparing their ‘Klopp for The Kop’ campaign posters); those who have been described as Rodgers ‘apologists’ (he wanted the good ‘uns and none of the bad ‘uns); and those who understand the reality (he sanctioned and therefore shares responsibility with the ‘transfer committee’ for every deal but was more enthusiastic about some than others).
With Benteke there is a point of separation in that everyone at Liverpool is eager to underline the fact that his signing represents backing for the manager. Rodgers desperately wanted him, thought him to be worth £32.5million, and got him. There is no ambiguity.
If Benteke delivers, Rodgers will be vindicated. If not, he’ll be accountable. One suspects that’s exactly how he’d prefer it, standing and falling based on his own judgement rather than dutifully convincing himself of another’s assessment that the reserve full-back signed from Atletico Madrid is the next Dani Alves.
We must be cautious until we’ve seen Rodgers’s new look side play in the Premier League but it is evident in the warm-up games that the Liverpool manager has fixed his mind on his preferred system and found players who fit. It should prevent the constant changes in shape and personnel of last season.
We knew when Rodgers arrived at Anfield that he was a 4-3-3 man. He’s played it plenty of times, but never with consistency because the players didn’t suit it.
When blessed with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge he was pragmatic enough to realise he needed to accommodate both in their most effective positions and the ‘diamond’ that almost won Liverpool the title was introduced.
Last season Rodgers admitted he was suffering from insomnia trying to work out how he was going to find a role for signings such as Emre Can, Lazar Markovic and Mario Balotelli in the same line-up. There was a period when playing three centre-halves worked, but by the end of the campaign Rodgers was criticised for changing shape too much.
Wherever the line is between being over-inventive and trying to be too clever, he’d crossed it. Rodgers’s mind appeared scrambled, often shifting formations after 20 minutes in games. Dr Steve Peters’ diary must have been full throughout June as Rodgers has returned to work determined to compartmentalise and bury all memories of last season.
No doubt there will be occasions when Rodgers will tinker again but his immediate ambition in August will be to ensure such constant meddling is no longer necessary, and the tactical conundrums will be encountered by opposing managers.
That will be intriguing when Sturridge returns to fitness, particularly if Benteke starts well and Liverpool perform without the England striker.
Even when he declares himself fit, it will take time for Sturridge to regain faith that another setback isn’t simply a few weeks away. It is inconceivable Rodgers will reshape a winning formula to accommodate the striker ever again as every injury means the chalkboard must take another hammering.
In Sturridge’s absence, Benteke joins Liverpool as the newly crowned number one striker. He is the signing most likely to determine Rodgers’ long-term fate at Anfield, the difference not just between the Merseyside club returning to the Champions League and being stuck in also-ran city, but also whether the manager survives his next May meeting with Mike Gordon and Tom Werner.
Andy Carroll’s failure ultimately cost the men who signed him their job. Regardless of whether the comparison with Benteke as a footballer stands up to scrutiny, Rodgers will be acutely aware that when you spend over £30million on a striker your fortunes are inextricably linked.