Christian Benteke signed his new two-year contract at Crystal Palace on June 3 before knowing who their new manager would be.
Why? For the first time in four seasons, the Belgian is riding a wave of form and feeling. It says a lot about Benteke’s character that no matter who the incoming manager would be, he wanted to stick around and fight for his spot.
It could have been Lucien Favre, or Paulo Fonseca, or Nuno Espirito Santo replacing Roy Hodgson. Eventually, Patrick Vieira was appointed one month later.
“We had a good chat, and he was happy to see me back,” Benteke tells Sky Sports. “He also explained to me his ID, how he wants us to play as a team, and it’s quite exciting, because as a forward, when your manager wants to be front foot, and to create chances, that’s what you want to hear.
“But it was important for me to get the deal done before the Euros, so I can really focus after the Euros about what happens next, so there is no doubt I am 100 per cent committed to Crystal Palace.”
Having finished last season with eight goals in 14 games, Benteke hit double figures of Premier League goals for the first time since 2017.
It was refreshing to see the returning essence of the player whose 49 goals in three seasons at Aston Villa earned him a £32.5m move to Liverpool. We’ve only seen spurts of it since.
In a fruitful first season at Palace under Alan Pardew and then Sam Allardyce in 2016/17, he scored 15 Premier League goals, but it soon dried up. He scored just five goals in three seasons between 2017 and 2020.
Was injury to blame? Palace’s playing style? Lack of confidence? It was likely a combination of all three and more, but the fact that Benteke remained a Palace player through this period surprised many.
“It was tough, and it was annoying,” Benteke says. “Obviously I know what I am capable of. It was about keeping my focus on where I should be on the pitch, and maybe I needed more luck, more chances, and I would say to play more minutes. The more you play the more chances you have to score goals.
“That happened in the second half of last season; I had the chance to play more games.”
It was tough, and it was annoying. Obviously I know what I am capable of.
Asked if there is a side to lacking confidence that fans and pundits don’t see, Benteke said: “Yeah of course. At the same time, it is hard for people outside the game, who aren’t in the training ground every day, to see that. You just see the weekend game, and even then sometimes you are not 100 per cent because you are not free in your head.
“But that is part of the job, you can’t complain about it, you have to deal with it. That’s what I’ve been doing throughout those years.
“I always say: ‘If you did it once, you can do it again.'”
Whatever ‘it’ is, Crystal Palace and the Premier League need more of it. Benteke is a scorer of fantastic goals, often acts of brute force and sublime technique in equal measure. On his day, he has the ability to destroy defences, and if the second half of last season is anything to go by, his form is returning.
Last season he averaged 3.51 shots per game and a 50 per cent big chance conversion, both the second highest in his Premier League career.
He has a fresh start under Vieira, but how will the Frenchman’s style suit a player like Benteke?
Vieira said upon joining Palace: “I want to see a team that is on the front foot, that scores more goals, and to have more shots on target than we’re used to.”
Great, but routes to goal take many forms.
American defender Ethan White, who played under Vieira at New York City FC, recently told Sky Sports’ Adam Bate: “He played attacking football, out from the back, everything on the ground. If you play the ball in the air, it is highly frowned upon.”
On the face of it, that doesn’t suit a 6ft 3in Benteke who has scored 32 of his 82 Premier League goals with his head. But Benteke is far more than a target man.
His hold-up play has always been a strength, and Palace fans saw more of it in the second half of last season, but Benteke has added more to his all-round game, notably winning the ball back high, that coveted trait most managers are now desperate to see.
His recoveries, tackles and possession won per 90 statistics last season were all personal bests since arriving in the Premier League.
“I have always been good at holding the ball up, but it was about showing it more consistently,” Benteke says. “It was about showing it every week.
“I think [Vieira] wants us to go forward, to play higher up the pitch, he wants us to try and get the ball back high as well, and he wants us to create chances.
“I would say that in terms of what we have to do without the ball, being a No 9 has changed. With Roy, it was important to have a good, strong shape, and there were some games where you didn’t create as many chances as you’d want. But obviously on the other side you are helping the team and the midfield by screening the opponent.
“I think now a No 9 has to be more flexible, and be able to do the dirty job, but also be there to finish the chances.”
What can we expect from Vieira’s Palace?
The fans, of course, want more entertainment. Of the clubs who have played consistently in the Premier League since 2017, only Burnley have created fewer chances than Palace.
Though his managerial skills are untested in the Premier League, his character and leadership is fabled. Benteke says the three-time title winner at Arsenal brings elements of his playing career into his coaching style.
“Are there similarities to Vieira as a player? Yes, yes, yes. The way that we train is quite intense. He wants to go forward, he wants the midfielder to break lines. That’s what he did when he played for Arsenal and for City, he would break lines as much as he could. I think it’s a mix of the old player, and how he wants us to play.
“I think the dynamic has been really good, and really positive. We all want to be in the same boat, we all want to do well under him. I am quite sure he will help us.”
At 30, Benteke has several years left at the top level. He is 18 goals away from joining the Premier League 100 club, a feat only 29 players have achieved.
He’d be lying to himself if he said he wasn’t thinking about membership.
The closer you get to that big number, I would say it’s hard to hide, or lie to yourself that you don’t want to reach it.
“Of course I think about it. The closer you get to that big number, I would say it’s hard to hide, or lie to yourself that you don’t want to reach it. Obviously I’m thinking about it, but my first goal is to have a good season, and by having a good season I can score goals.
“I think it’s a fresh start for all of us, to be honest, because we’ve been working with Roy for four-and-a-half, five years, and the new manager is a new challenge for all of us.
“I feel mentally and physically good. Obviously there is a new manager now, so the dynamic is different, and the mood is also different. So it’s a new start for all of us, and me personally you want to show to the new manager that he can trust you, to show him your qualities.
“It’s an exciting moment for myself, and for the club as well.”