I wrote this piece for the final issue of the excellent We Are Liverpool fanzine, in early September. A lot has happened at Anfield since then of course, but with Benteke reportedly back in training, it’ll be interesting to see if the points raised in this article remain relevant under Jürgen Klopp’s management.
A recent tweet from @WhoScored caught my eye whilst I tried to while away another interminable international break:
Leaving aside for now the fact that the data on WhoScored’s own site states that Benteke has won 41 aerial duels this season and not 62, like so many of the tweets that the mega powers of the football stats world pump out relentlessly, it initially seems of interest until you ask yourself a few questions, such as:
Yeah? And? So? What?
The stat brought to mind a famous philosophical thought experiment (and hence the name of this article), which I have paraphrased here:
If Christian Benteke wins a header and there’s nobody around, does it matter?
Benteke has frequently been left isolated in his opening games for Liverpool, so I thought I’d dig deeper around the headline stat and see what benefit, if any, this aerial prowess has actually brought to the Reds.
One person who has definitely made the most of it is Simon Mignolet. His issues with short passing and being pressed by opponents are well known from 2014/15, and sure enough Benteke was the keeper’s top (or joint top) pass recipient in each of the first three games of this season.
This was most notably seen at the Emirates, where Mignolet found Benteke with eleven passes; the former Sunderland man has only passed to a team-mate more times in four of his thirty-nine league starts since August 2014, and never to a striker. The two Belgian’s have linked up well, with Benteke providing the outlet that Mignolet so sorely required last season.
So there’s one beneficiary of Benteke’s ability in the air, but how many of his attempted passes from aerial duels have found a teammate at the business end of the pitch?
Sadly the breakdown of how many headed passes came following duels is not available, but the former Villa man has found a fellow Red with 25 of his 54 attempted passes using his noggin. This accuracy rate of 46% is similar to that which he posted across his three years at Villa (38%), but these will include headed passes when he hasn’t got a centre back lump coming through the back of him, so these figures don’t particularly help add meat to the bones of the stat at the focus of this ramble.
What we really want to know is, how many of the headers that Benteke has won have lead to attempts at goal, and thanks to the Opta data on the official Liverpool site, I know the answer. How many do you think there have been, out of the 54 shots that the Reds have had so far?
Five. Come on, hands up who thought it was none?
If we exclude the four headers Benteke has won in the Liverpool half, then it means that a shot has come from about one in every seven aerial duels that the big Belgian has won, and that’s far more often than I would have expected.
In fairness, there have been some decent chances in there too; Coutinho forced Cech to tip his shot on to the post at Arsenal following a headed duel pass, and Lovren should really have scored against West Ham (never mind gifted them their second goal) when Benteke picked him out at the back post at Anfield.
What I really want to see though are chances like the one that Dirk Kuyt made the most of to knock United out of the FA Cup with in 2012. It’s not that I want us to become a route one side, but a long kick from Reina was headed on by Carroll into the path of the onrushing Kuyt who took care of the rest. We know that Benteke can win headers in dangerous areas, and that chances can come from them, so lets see runners around him who can make the most of it.
That WhoScored tweet might actually mean something important then.