Monday 24 October 2016

Rodgers' tactics failing to get best out of isolated Benteke

Paul Wilson

Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30

Whether Liverpool are playing to Christian Benteke’s strengths is a moot point — they aren’t set up to service a traditional centre-forward
Whether Liverpool are playing to Christian Benteke’s strengths is a moot point — they aren’t set up to service a traditional centre-forward

The good news for Brendan Rodgers and his newly timid Liverpool side is that Norwich City are back in the Premier League, back at Anfield this afternoon, and so goals should be back on the agenda. The bad news is that Luis Suarez remains in Barcelona.

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Liverpool's various demolitions of Norwich over the past few years featured 12 goals in six games from the Uruguayan, including three hat-tricks. It has become somewhat cliched to remark that Liverpool are not the same team without Suarez . The question is whether the Anfield revival of a couple of seasons ago was a fleeting illusion based more on Suarez's potency - with additional help from a fit Daniel Sturridge and a free-to-roam Raheem Sterling - than any overall upgrade in effectiveness.

There are those who doubt whether there is any oxygen left from the intoxicating charge to take the title race to its last day in 2014, in which case few could be more suitable than the Canaries to put the matter to the test. Suarez is long gone now, Sterling shortly gone, Sturridge only nearing a return after a year on the sidelines. To lose your two main strikers unexpectedly cannot have been easy to deal with, though that was last season's excuse and Suarez's departure was not exactly unexpected.

Liverpool received good money in return, as they did for Sterling, and replacements have been bought. The problem appears to have been, at least in the case of Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert, that the replacements soon needed replacing.

Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Lazar Markovic have hardly nailed down places in the starting line up either, and already Roberto Firmino is beginning to look as though he might need a lot more time to adapt to the Premier League than his £29m fee would suggest.

With Jordan Henderson picking up an injury that will rule him out for eight weeks, Philippe Coutinho earning a suspension and even Steven Gerrard making noises off about the manner of his departure, it has not been a great start to the season for Liverpool. Just about the only positive, apart from the consistency of Nathaniel Clyne and the emergence of Joe Gomez, has been the acquisition of Christian Benteke, whose stunning goal at Old Trafford was proof of quality, albeit in a lost cause. Benteke is the sort of centre-forward Manchester United probably should have signed as back-up for Wayne Rooney.

It seems absurd that a club throwing its money at practically everything in shorts for the past couple of seasons would prefer to invite derision by sending Marouane Fellaini out to lead the line when for a mere £32m - roughly twice as much as United are paying the Glazer family each year - they could have had a 24-year-old finisher with a proven Premier League record.

Whether Liverpool are playing to Benteke's strengths is a moot point. One of the reasons Balotelli and Lambert did not get much of a look-in was that Liverpool were not set up to service a traditional centre-forward, and they still aren't.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that Benteke is as unsuited to Rodgers' preferred style of playing as Andy Carroll before him, but in the defeat at Old Trafford his potential went unexplored. His goal came from his ability to conjure something out of nothing and even Phil Thompson, not normally a Liverpool critic, said the striker needed more support.

When asked the inevitable question about whether Liverpool would have to change their game to suit their new centre-forward, Rodgers said no, Benteke merely provided an extra option, another way of breaking down opponents. Yet Liverpool were so far from breaking down United, or West Ham before that, it was painful to watch.

Benteke cannot provide an extra option all by himself. If you sign a player who is good at heading the ball, at taking on central defenders and getting on the end of quick breaks, it follows that the rest of the team should give him a few crosses and passes to attack. Last time out, Liverpool were simply using Benteke as a forward outlet, banging the ball up to him just to buy some time for the defence.

Rodgers claims he wants to return to "the exciting way of working we had for the last couple of seasons", though judging by the hostile tone of online comments, the fans cannot see it happening. Liverpool are not United, the £32m invested in Benteke was a significant sum. If the exciting way of working is to return, it has to find a means of including the major summer signing, rather than leaving him isolated.

A club of Liverpool's traditions cannot afford to lack direction, as Rodgers is being made all too aware. There is a danger of taking the newly-promoted side for granted. But a flurry of goals would come in handy for Liverpool right now, and not just for old times' sake.


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