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It was the 26th August last year when Liverpool completed the signing of Mario Balotelli, turning to the Italian after missing out on Alexis Sanchez and deciding not to gamble on Loic Remy’s heart concerns. With deadline day looming and Luis Suarez having departed the month before, it was a choice between Balotelli and Samuel Eto’o to replace the Uruguayan.
Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool’s transfer committee decided on the former and eleven months later, with Balotelli in limbo and Lazio and Sampdoria being linked, it was a move they got emphatically wrong. But with Eto’o now at the newly rich Turkish club Antalyaspor after a short spell with Sampdoria via Everton, it is now looking in retrospect exactly like the type of decision Rodgers and his committee won’t want to have to make again.
Hence why this time around they have already met to ratify six signings before the month of August has even begun, with Roberto Firminho, Danny Ings, James Milner, Adam Bogdan, Nathaniel Clyne and Joe Gomez through the door.
A seventh signing has all-but been secured, with Christian Benteke due to complete a £32.5 million move from Aston Villa should he pass a medical. That will take Liverpool’s summer spending past £70 million, short of the £117m that was outlaid last year but this time the business has been sharp and level-headed, with Rodgers, now under pressure to deliver an upturn in performance after May’s meeting with club owners FSG, desperate to avoid a repeat of last August’s scattergun finale.
Benteke’s arrival, sparked by Liverpool’s agreement to meet his release clause with haste after hearing that Manchester United may have been interested, is likely to spell the end for Rickie Lambert just as much as Balotelli. Lambert started just 7 times for Liverpool last season after a £4 million move from Southampton and having only managed two goals, he will be behind Benteke and Divock Origi, who will return from a loan spell at Lille. With West Brom interested, the England forward has been told he is allowed to leave.
The 20 year old Origi found the net just 9 times in 44 games in France last term but Rodgers saw enough in the Belgian to fork out £10 million for him last July so he is likely to be entrusted to serve as Benteke’s understudy as his 24 year old countryman plays the central attacking role in a 4-3-3.
Raheem Sterling’s exit to Manchester City, for the £40 million that has helped to fund the move for Benteke, will mean that Brazilian duo of Firmino, who joins with the sizeable price tag of £29 million from Hoffenheim, and Phillipe Coutinho, aiming to build on an impressive season at Anfield, will play either side of the central attacker.
Ings, Lazar Markovic, Jordan Ibe, Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge, who Rodgers will be longing to get fit after a 12 months of chronic injury trouble, will provide the manager with variety should he feel the need to freshen his team up.
Rodgers was lauded for his ability to change and alter systems when he navigated the 2013/14 vintage to within two points of the title but last season, hindered by the exit of Suarez, the absence of Sturridge and the disruption of Sterling later on in the campaign, he simply wasn’t able to replicate that versatility and Liverpool often looked laboured and predictable when going forward.
Robbed of an attacking focal point with Balotelli typically disinterested and Lambert struggling to stake a claim, Sterling was often trusted with a central role and so followed a Liverpool that appeared anaemic in front of goal; scoring a total of 52 goals, the least in the top 7 and down from 101 the season before.
Benteke, who arrives with a record of 42 goals in 88 games from his time with Aston Villa, will play a huge role in solving that problem. Liverpool will be aware of that first-hand having witnessed the Belgian score 5 goals in his last 6 outings against the Merseyside club.
Given the provision of the likes of Coutinho, Firmino, Lallana and Ings, with Alberto Moreno and Clyne being urged forward from deep, Benteke should thrive among a higher calibre of players than those he found himself surrounded by at Villa.
There should be no repeat of the lethargy that existed under Paul Lambert that caused Benteke to go 13 games without a goal as Villa sank agonisingly close to relegation, Rodgers’s adventurous style bears more similarities to that of Tim Sherwood who managed to get the Belgian firing with 11 goals in his last 9 games to keep the Midlands club up.
Of course that service will require some compromise and an admittance from Rodgers that a short, intricate passing approach may not always be the best route to incision. Liverpool made the least crosses from open play last season (409) and that will be a concern given Benteke’s muscular 6ft 3 inch frame feeds off balls into the box.
“There’s no point going to a club where they don’t cross the ball”, said Sherwood ahead of the FA Cup final, possibly in a reference to his future employers.
There is a lot more to the Belgian than his ability in the air, though his record of 188 headers won was a league high for strikers last season and will undoubtedly offer Liverpool a direct option should they need to get the ball forward quickly. Benteke’s power and strength, partnered with his underrated control and touch, will then occupy defenders to create room for the multitude of other attackers in Liverpool’s armoury.
Comparisons will be made to Andy Carroll, to whom Benteke now becomes 2nd in line as the most expensive Liverpool player of all time and who Rodgers jettisoned as he assumed the reigns from Kenny Dalglish, but the 24 year old arrives with much greater pedigree and more facets to his play than the former Newcastle forward.
Carroll conjures caution around Anfield of how giant lumps of money can be wasted however, Rodgers has to ensure Benteke doesn’t follow or FSG’s leniency may quickly run out.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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