Klopp must counter cultural legacy to free Benteke potential

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp seems perplexed about what to do with striker Christian Benteke. Paul Little believes a little pragmatism would be a start.

Liverpool do not score enough goals, just 25 in 22 league games so far this season. Not scoring enough goals debilitates a team in more ways than just the obvious. The fact that you can’t score enough goals magnifies any defensive error punished by the opposition. The inability to score goals increases pressure on everyone. It saps the confidence of those tasked with hitting the back of the net, and it heaps pressure on those tasked with stopping the opposition from doing likewise. And it has a serious impact on fans. The fans lose belief, and the players feel it.

Not getting enough goals killed Brendan Rodgers. Now the chronic goal shyness is hurting Jurgen Klopp. And he is hurting. You only had to see him after losing to Manchester United last weekend to know it. Going out and buying goals seems the most popular solution. Liverpool may well go down that line – witness their big money offer for Alex Teixeira of Shakhtar Donetsk. But then as we’ve seen, such purchases don’t always produce the desired or expected results. So, working better with what you’ve got is an approach that cannot be ignored.

And let’s remember, Jurgen Klopp was brought in to replace Rodgers, not just to rip it all up and start again. FSG have spent heavily, and they’ll expect, rightfully, that the German will do his damndest to make the current squad work before engaging in major surgery. And I suppose you could argue he’s made some headway in that regard recently with one expensive summer recruit.

Roberto Firmino, Liverpool’s third most expensive signing ever, has been showing flashes. He has scored goals in Germany. He should be capable. But he’s still getting to the pitch of Premier League football. But he’s starting to look like he’ll get there. He’s looking stronger. His movement is better. And the goals will most probably come with his increasing influence. So some credit to Klopp there, perhaps.

Christian Benteke though. What can we say about the Belgian since the arrival of the former Borussia Dortmund manager?

Plenty of Liverpool fans have given up on him already. We know that. And plenty never believed in him in the first place. And as is the way with many modern football fans for whom being proven right has become more important than their club doing well, no matter what he does, we know that a great many will never accept his presence.

He doesn’t fit the system, they say. He’s not good enough for the system. He doesn’t fit with the philosophy.

But Liverpool need goals. And frankly, any way you slice it, Benteke’s Premier League scoring record dwarves that of every single Liverpool player – the permanently crocked Daniel Sturridge aside. Surely, surely on that basis, Klopp needs to do more with Benteke? Surely, he needs to consider sacrificing the current systems and philosophy in favour of finding that precious route to goal?

Benteke – despite his limitations – is more likely to score than any other Liverpool player. Even when he looks like the proverbial square peg, he is still the most likely. Systems are great when you have the players to make them work. When you don’t, then you need to be pragmatic.

Klopp doesn’t appear to fancy the Belgian, despite what he says. However, he has shown his pragmatic side, not being too proud to throw him on and launch Hail Marys in search of salvation. For goodness sake, Steven Caulker’s two appearances for the Reds have been as an auxiliary, big man striker. Systems and philosophies be damned.

However, even in such instances, Benteke (and Caulker!) has still been poorly served. Liverpool either refuse to cross the ball when they get into good wide positions, or they launch high balls from the wrong areas, giving the big man precious little chance to impress. It really shouldn’t be that difficult. But even Klopp seems unsure how to make it work. Consider the last 10 minutes against United last Sunday. Klopp had brought on Ibe, Benteke and Caulker. But for some reason, Ibe was attacking down the left flank, which meant as he’s predominantly right footed, he constantly cut inside. Time and again he did so, never providing the kind of width or service that big men can really live off.

The funny thing is, Ibe cuts in from the right also. Everyone seems to cut inside. It’s either the result of instruction from the manager, or probably part of a culture and style fostered at the club prior to Klopp that looks to score the perfect goal, that tries to winkle the ball through the heart of the opposition defence – as if the wings were for losers.

The cultural legacy theory was given serious weight when Liverpool’s kids played Exeter in the FA Cup Third round tie at St James’s Park. Time and again crossing positions were neatly and cleverly worked, they had Benteke as a target, but time and again, they did an Ibe and continued to play as if the former Villa man didn’t exist.

One of Liverpool’s best goals this season was Benteke’s towering header against Southampton at Anfield in late October. Milner, level with the penalty area, but almost on the touchline, whipped over the kind of ball that Benteke eats – and he ate it. It was a goal of power and beauty – but it’s a goal Liverpool don’t score enough of because they do not play that ball enough.

Perhaps some believe it’s beneath the club. Perhaps that’s Aston Villa football. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And Liverpool need goals. They have a striker who has scored 48 goals in 108 Premier League appearances – a record close to one in every two games. Surely, even if Klopp doesn’t see Benteke as part of Liverpool’s long-term future, it shouldn’t be beyond him to get more from the striker?  Surely playing to Benteke’s strengths shouldn’t be that difficult to achieve? Get it wide, get it in the box early, get bodies in and around the Belgian. Give him a chance.

After all, ignoring his strengths and scoring ability in favour of a particular philosophy or system of play hasn’t exactly served Liverpool well of late has it? Put simply, it smacks of cutting off your nose to spite your face.  

Tweet Paul at @little_football


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