Why Liverpool are going back to the future with Christian Benteke bid
Paul McNamara looks at Liverpool's reported bid to sign Christian Benteke and how target men have fared at Anfield
From the moment that Brendan Rodgers was announced as Liverpool’s manager on 1 June 2012, the clock was ticking on Andy Carroll’s Anfield career.
The Reds’ record signing, as it transpired, lasted less than a month into the subsequent campaign, before he was shipped out to West Ham United.
Rodgers’ unabashed vaunting of his personal football philosophy is as admired in some quarters as it is derided in others. What has always been clear, however, is that the Northern Irishman’s quixotic vision for how he wants his teams to play has no place for a strapping target-man, spearheading the front-line.
Needs must, however, and Rodgers has agreed to meet the hefty £32.5m buyout clause in strapping centre-forward Christian Benteke’s Aston Villa contract.
As Liverpool laboured through the former Swansea boss’s first term in charge, Rodgers’ methods looked somewhat one-dimensional. Yet, when things took off unexpectedly and spectacularly during the 2013/14 campaign, the Merseysiders’ manager was being hailed as a genius, a pioneering individual taking it to the established order on the back of a possession-based, flair-driven game.
When things began to turn sour last season, though, the doubts resurfaced. How much of the Reds’ Premier League title tilt the previous year had been down to Rodgers being able to send out the electric, mobile three-pronged attack of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling?
Without the exceptional Suarez, sold to Barcelona last summer, and the serially stricken Sturridge, Rodgers was being asked to find a new way to keep Liverpool competitive. In that task, the 42 year-old came up short.
The Reds boss’s decision to go against the grain prior to the last campaign, by signing Rickie Lambert from Southampton, was commonly viewed as his accepting that a more physical striking option might help bridge the gap to then champions Manchester City – a gap that stood at a meagre two points when the curtain came down on 2013/2014.
Indeed, if Liverpool’s 16-match unbeaten run hadn’t come grinding to a halt when a depleted Chelsea side won at Anfield three games from that season’s end, Rodgers would probably have led the club to a first English title since 1990.
The Reds’ defeat to Jose Mourinho’s team is best remembered for Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip, which allowed Demba Ba to streak through to score past Simon Mignolet. The real story of the day, though, was Rodgers’ side’s inflexibility, as they strove to crack a resilient, defensively minded opponent, not prepared to doff its cap to their hosts’ free-flowing football, before bowing to inevitable defeat.
When it came to the crunch last season, though, Rodgers couldn’t bring himself to rely on England international Lambert to change things up, instead conjuring up a host of attacking alternatives in preference to going with the bustling presence of his new centre-forward. It is possible, of course, that rather than being reluctant to compromise his ideals, the manager simply didn’t rate the 33-year-old sufficiently to hand him front-running responsibilities.
Nevertheless, Rodgers doesn’t need to reach too far back into the annals to find players of Lambert’s combative ilk who have thrived at Anfield. Peter Crouch and Emile Heskey, in particular, both flourished when occupying a Liverpool striking jersey.
You would have to go a long way to find a footballer who gets a more unfair rap for his worth than Heskey. Capped no fewer than 62 times by England, the man for whose services Gerard Houllier forked out £11m featured prominently in a Liverpool team that completed the treble of Uefa Cup, FA Cup and League Cup in his first full campaign with the club.
Heskey was by no means a goal-machine in his time on Merseyside – even if he notched 22 strikes in that trophy-laden 2000/2001 season – but ask Michael Owen for an opinion on his ex-strike partner, and you’ll likely receive a rave review.
Owen was never more prolific in his Reds’ career than during the former Leicester City man’s first three years at Anfield, while the ex-Real Madrid forward also owes a debt to Heskey for a substantial number of the 40 goals he struck for his country.
A year after Heskey’s 2004 transfer to Birmingham City, Houllier’s successor, Rafael Benitez, turned to Peter Crouch in order to give his front-line a fresh dynamic. It was a move that was met with a definite sense of bewilderment by many fans and observers, but with the addition of the 6ft 7in player from Southampton, Liverpool went on to win the 2006 FA Cup.
If anybody considered there to be question marks remaining over Crouch’s merits at the highest level after his first year with the five-time European Cup winners, then they were dispelled by the England player’s giant part in Benitez’s team’s run to the 2007 Champions League final.
Post-Crouch, who left for Portsmouth in 2008, the Reds’ Spanish manager structured his offensive game-plan around a rampant Fernando Torres, with the deep-lying passing of Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard supplying the bullets for their red-hot striker.
When Chelsea parted with £50m to take Torres to Stamford Bridge in 2011, though, Kenny Dalglish, by then in charge at Anfield, wasted no time in shelling out 70% of that cash on Carroll, restoring variety to a strike-force that would also benefit from the bargain purchase of Suarez, signed at the same time as the Geordie target-man.
In the wake of his bid for Benteke, there can be no doubt that Rodgers has concluded he has to strike a similar balance.
Clearly, the Belgian will add a completely new dimension to the Reds’ attacking arsenal. The prospect of the Liverpool boss laying out such a tremendous fee for Benteke, only to consign him to a fringe role is an inconceivable one. By the same token, the 24-year-old must have received some assurances regarding his place in Rodgers’ plans, to agree to the move one year away from a major international tournament.
After three trophy-less years in the job, and following the recent culling of his support staff, Rodgers has no room for error. It is imperative, therefore, that what is expected to be a transition in his team’s playing style is achieved with some haste. Anything else and the County Antrim man will be treading an extremely fine line, having abandoned his exclusively on-the-floor footballing principles, to boot.