Back in the summer of 2016, Crystal Palace’s capture of Christian Benteke from Liverpool had all the hallmarks of a signing that had the potential to catapult the club to the next level. 12 months later, the Belgian looked to be providing genuine value for money but to fast-forward another two years is to find a front-man who has lost his mojo with no sign as to how he can go about getting it back.
Having been cast aside in the whirlwind that was Jurgen Klopp’s Gegenpressing Rock ‘n Roll Revolution at Liverpool, Big Ben arrived in SE25 during a summer when the Eagles were still coming to terms with FA Cup Final heartbreak against Manchester United in May. With Alan Pardew still sat in the Selhurst dugout, the board’s decision to back him so heavily showed a genuine desire for “Super Al” to weather the storm of public opinion and come out unscathed; sadly despite Benteke’s best efforts, the former fan favourite was dismissed from his post in late December and replaced by Sam Allardyce, a manager who Christian was always bound to work well alongside.
Clearly emboldened by the ex-England gaffer’s arrival, Palace’s lone leading man went on to bag nine goals between January 31st and May 14th, taking his overall tally for the 2016/17 season to 17. With safety secured, things looked set fair for Benteke to attack the new campaign with a real spring in his step, only for the manager responsible for our survival to roll out of town as quickly as he had appeared; leaving both Christian and Crystal Palace as a whole fumbling in the dark for some degree of solid ground upon which to steady themselves.
Next into the Palace hot-seat was Dutch legend Frank de Boer; a manager whose tactical ideas hardly seemed suited to lumping it long to a big man up top. Admittedly, the ex-Ajax gaffer used Christian in all four Premier League games he took charge of but with a philosophy built around team-wide possession, it came as little surprise to see Benteke fail to find the back of the net. We will never know if FDB’s tactics would have eventually paid dividends for Big Ben as after a dominant 1-0 defeat away to Burnley, he was dismissed and rapidly replaced with former England man Roy Hodgson who on paper at least, looked to have a far better chance of lighting a fire under the striker’s backside.
Following a 1-0 home defeat to Southampton in Hodgson’s first game in charge, Benteke started away to Manchester City before picking up an injury which seems to have haunted him ever since. On a day when Palace went down by a score-line of five goals to nil, the Belgian front-man sustained ligament damage; prompting a series of rehabilitation programmes which would ultimately act as though sticking a child’s plaster on a gaping flesh wound. It is to Benteke’s personal credit that the 12 months immediately after saw him battle to play whenever possible but in truth, his output at the head of the side has never looked the same as it did in his first year with the club.
Perhaps no incident better sums up the big man’s struggles since the summer of 2017 better than his decision to take a potential game winning penalty from club captain and spot-kick expert Luka Milivojevic in December of the same year. Frustrated at his lack of attacking impact and desperate to make amends, he went against the wishes of Palace’s supporters, players and coaching staff in pulling rank over the Serbian, only to produce a painfully weak strike from the spot and squander two potentially precious points in the battle against the drop.
It’s an incident which has cast a shadow over the striker ever since, simultaneously highlighting his desire to prove that he is capable of carrying supporters’ expectations on his shoulders whilst giving everyone at the club pause for thought over how we can best utilise that sense of duty, without sacrificing the rest of the team’s talents. However you choose to break down the last 24 months of Christian Benteke’s career, it’s clear that Crystal Palace aren’t getting anything close to what an impartial observer would describe as value for money but how, if at all, can Roy Hodgson adapt the side to play to the Belgian’s strengths?
Now 28 years old, Benteke’s game will likely rely more than ever before upon his famed aerial ability in what remains of his time in the top flight. It’s not something that Palace’s boss has ever seemed particularly willing to bend towards but with a contract running until at least 2020 (there is an option of another year being taken up further down the line) and no offers on the table that Christian seems happy to entertain, there will surely be a huge amount of head-scratching being done by the club’s coaches as to how we can get him firing to a level which at least partially justifies his six-figure weekly pay packet.
Analysis of the three full seasons he’s spent in SE25 to date demonstrate a steady decline in the quality of both his attacking output and general performances. Across the 2016/17 season, the former Liverpool man made 36 Premier League appearances in red and blue, all from the start, totalling 3183 minutes of match-time. Within that he scored 15 goals, got two assists and won seven Man of the Match awards (according to WhoScored.com) alongside an absolutely magnificent total of 323 aerial duels – an average of nine per game.
It’s widely accepted that Benteke’s most impressive single campaign in England came as part of Aston Villa’s squad back in 2012/13, when he had the whole country talking about how good he could become. His raw strength, physicality and general confidence struck fear into defenders across the land. During that spell, he scored 19 goals, got four assists, won 269 aerial challenges and had 104 shots at goal, a total which is just one shy of the 105 he totted up for Palace in 16/17.
Whilst it’s not exactly rocket-science, those of us who’ve watched him closely over the years can see that he works best when used as a genuine target man who has a midfield geared towards providing him with crosses in towards his head or, failing that, balls played towards his feet from 12 yards and closer. It’s something we borderline perfected in the promotion campaign of 2012/13, having initially been cultivated by manager Dougie Freedman. With Wilfried Zaha on one wing, Yannick Bolasie on the other and Glenn Murray in the middle, entire defences were sent into a tailspin. Admittedly, Murray’s movement and general understanding with the two wide-men was a source of great comfort but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to feel that Benteke could go on to reach the same standards if it was something we worked on, as a team, from the beginning of pre-season training.
The overwhelming odds remain in the favour of Benteke’s Palace career fizzling out rather than coming back with a bang in the 2019/20 campaign but as is often the case in the heady days of summer, I’m willing to hope that he can get somewhere close to being back at his best between now and May. It will take a hell of a lot of work from Christian, real faith in him from fans, players and coaches alike, as well as a tangible shift in style from Roy Hodgson but it’s not impossible.
Hope springs eternal.