Normally when Liverpool sign (or are heavily linked) to a player, I take a look at their stats from the previous season, to see what the numbers suggest the new boy might bring to the Reds in the coming campaign.
With Christian Benteke however, there is one major point of interest, thanks to this interview with his manager Tim Sherwood, which included the following:
Sherwood has also noted that Liverpool’s number of crosses this season – 409 – is the lowest in the top division. “We cross more balls into the box than any other club in the league and Christian has said that he feeds off crosses,” Sherwood said. “There’s no point going to a club where they don’t cross the ball.”
Despite the fact that Sherwood is obviously keen to hang on to the Belgian striker, and also that ‘Tactics Tim’ is a figure of fun for Liverpool fans for 99% of the time, Kopites (or at least those disinterested with the notion of signing Benteke for £32.5m) have taken his comments to heart; do a search for ‘Benteke crosses’ on Twitter, and you’ll find plenty of tweets along those lines from pundits and Liverpool fans alike:
You get the idea, and whilst it is true that Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool cross less often than every other team in the Premier League, a little dig deeper reveals some very interesting facts.
The first thing I wanted to discover was how important crosses are to Benteke’s scoring record. To measure this, I looked at how many of his assisted goals came via open play crosses, and how that compares to the rest of the Premier League. All of the stats quoted below are for league football since August 2012, which works out nicely as that period covers both the Brendan Rodgers era at Liverpool, and Benteke’s three years with Villa.
The Belgian striker has been assisted for twenty-eight league goals in his time with the Villans, and of those eight have been from crosses (though not including corners; we’ll cover those in a later section). This means that 29% of his strikes have required a ball in from wide areas.
In the Premier League over the same period, there have been 627 goals created via crosses, from a total of 2,042 net-bulgers that have been assisted; 31% in percentage terms, so a slightly higher proportion than Benteke.
If I had infinite time, I could see how the proportion of chances created from crosses to Benteke compares to league average, but it seems reasonable to say that the Belgian is no more reliant on crosses for goals than your average top flight team is at least.
He may also make more use of them than, say, Daniel Sturridge does (though in fairness the two players joint-topped the 2013/14 headed goal table, alongside Wilfried Bony), and Benteke is also in the top five in the league for receiving crosses, but there’s little to suggest he’s overly reliant on crosses to score goals in open play. People inevitably recall the most recent season most clearly, and as four of his nine assisted goals (44%) came from crosses that perhaps colours the collective thinking, but over a longer period the percentage is much lower.
But even if we assume that Benteke will require a high number of crosses to fully succeed at Liverpool (and as almost a quarter of his non-penalty goals have come that way, then it still seems a fairly reasonable assumption), how will he do this when the Reds cross less often than every other team?
Take a look at the following table, which shows how many chances Villa and Liverpool have created from crosses over the previous three seasons. It’s also to important to remember that Andy Carroll left at the start of this period too, so his presence isn’t felt in the below figures.
The Reds may not cross that often, but they appear equally as capable as Benteke’s Aston Villa at creating goalscoring opportunities from them. Crosses made up a higher proportion of Villa’s chances than they have done for Liverpool, but it certainly seems fair to say that Liverpool will create from crosses as often as Benteke is used to.
I noted in this piece on Nathaniel Clyne that he favours crossing as a creative strategy, and Benteke was assisted by Villa’s right back Bacuna four times last season (which was the joint-second best assist to goal scorer combination in the division), so perhaps this is a link up we might see in 2015/16.
I said we’d look at corners, so here we are: Christian Benteke has scored five of his twenty-eight assisted league goals (18%) via this method, which is a fair way above the league average of 8%, and he also converts set piece shots at a high level too.
The big Belgian has scored 12.3% of his shots in set piece situations (netting eight of his sixty-five efforts), which compares favourably with the top flight average which is 8.6%. At the same time, this is not as extreme as (for example) when Martin Skrtel scored 50% of his set piece efforts in 2013/14 (with seven goals from fourteen shots), so it’s a scoring rate that should be more likely to be sustained. Perhaps Benteke’s presence will lift Liverpool closer to their remarkable dead ball exploits which in turn helped to power a title challenge two seasons ago?
Aside from all of the above, researching this article has heartened me about Benteke in other ways that suggest he’s no mere battering ram; I found three goals where he won the ball himself high up the pitch before scoring (with two of these officially classed as counter attacks), three more where he received a pass in a deeper area and dribbled past a defender ahead of netting, and he also won a penalty that he converted to win a local derby 4-3.
I’m still not convinced he’s the right choice for Liverpool, as he hardly seems like a direct alternative to Daniel Sturridge (which is what the Reds so sorely lacked as they toiled for most of last season), but I have at least convinced myself that providing him with crosses shouldn’t be a struggle, and that he can score goals in a wide variety of ways. What do you think?