Tuesday 22 May 2018

Comment: Christian Benteke the spare piece in Klopp's frenetic Liverpool jigsaw

Liverpool's Christian Benteke comes on as a substitute for James Milner
Liverpool's Christian Benteke comes on as a substitute for James Milner

Jim White

Just before kick-off, Jurgen Klopp was asked on live television what his plan was as his Liverpool team took on the league leaders. Klopp grinned his big beam smile and replied: "Nice of you to suggest we have a plan."

He had a point. If there was any organisation applied to this bonkers kick and rush of a game it was hard to identify.

Klopp, for one, looked at once both astonished and infuriated by the anarchy unleashed in front of him. At one point he was spoken to by the referee, whose attention had been drawn by the fourth official to his flailing fury on the touchline.

Standing alongside him, Arsene Wenger jokingly suggested that he calm down. Though it was hard to know from a distance whether the Arsenal manager did so in a faux Scouse accent.

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What we can be sure of, however, if there was a plan, it did not involve a start for Christian Benteke. The big Belgian forward, who cost a mere £32.5million when he was signed from Aston Villa in the summer, was pictured on the front of the match-day programme looking ferocious, celebrating a goal. But Klopp preferred to start against Arsenal without any forwards at all rather than call on his services.

Jurgen Klopp celebrates Liverpool’s late equaliser: Action Images via Reuters / Carl Recine
Jurgen Klopp celebrates Liverpool’s late equaliser: Action Images via Reuters / Carl Recine

The manager may have said that the players he inherited from Brendan Rodgers all have the chance to impress themselves into his thinking, but that does not seem to include Benteke. The fact is that since the new manager arrived in October, the centre-forward has not started in any of the games against the Premier League's big sides. His starts have been against Swansea City, Newcastle United, Sunderland and last Friday Exeter.

Not Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. If he starts against Manchester United on Sunday it will be the biggest indictment yet of Louis van Gaal's team.

Daniel Sturridge and Jurgen Klopp

Not that the way they started Liverpool appeared to need any forwards. The selection may have been made out of necessity - with Benteke misfiring and Daniel Sturridge absconding, Klopp can legitimately argue he had no forwards on whom to call - but Liverpool soon made a virtue of it.

All of them wearing short sleeves, manning up to the coldest night of the season, the home side tore at Arsenal from the start. James Milner and Alberto Moreno marauded down the left flank, Adam Lallana sped into the box, Jordan Ibe was tricky and direct. And alongside them Roberto Firmino was auditioning to be the new Luis Suarez.

It is a telling statistic that ahead of this fixture Liverpool had accrued 22 goals in their first 20 games of the season, which is exactly the same number as Suarez scored on his own across the same period in 2013-'14.

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Liverpool’s Joe Allen (second from left) celebrates his last-gasp equaliser with team-mates Alberto Moreno, Christian Benteke and Roberto Firmino at Anfield last night: AFP PHOTO / PAUL ELLIS

And he was suspended for the first six games of that term. But, for a moment at least, Firmino looked like Suarez reborn. First he hammered home a rebound after Petr Cech had saved from Emre Can. Then he scored an even better one, a curling, swerving belter into the top corner, beyond Cech's reach.

The ease, however, with which Aaron Ramsey sauntered through an absolutely static backline, and squeezed ball inside Simon Mignolet's near post to equalise Firmino's first was but the start of the defensive woe for the home side. The second was even worse. Whatever Exeter can do, Arsenal can too. Mesut Ozil took a corner, the ball drifted through the entire Liverpool backline before Olivier Giroud applied the gentlest of touches which sent it through Mignolet's legs.

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp speaks with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger Action Images via Reuters / Carl Recine

A moment later, Theo Walcott sauntered through the home defence and set up Giroud, who somehow contrived to perform a backheeled clearance while standing on the line.

When Arsenal got a third early in the second half, Klopp had ceased his fuming and was standing with his hands in his pockets on the edge of his technical area wryly shaking his head. A couple of minutes later he called Benteke from the bench and sent him on to replace Milner. Against all expectation, it worked.

With only moments to go, with Steven Caulker, the newly signed centre-back playing up front alongside the Belgian, Jordan Henderson sent a hopeful punt into the area, Benteke rose above the static Arsenal defence and nodded down into the path of Joe Allen to equalise. The plan had clearly worked to perfection.


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