As Aston Villa were reeling this week following Christian Benteke’s transfer request, manager Paul Lambert must have felt a victim of his own good work. Last summer, the Scotsman took over a team on an apparent unrelenting decline. As if being the new manager at one of England’s biggest clubs wasn’t enough of a challenge, he had to conduct a juggling act; lowering the wage-bill and blooding young players out of necessity, whilst simultaneously maintaining Villa’s Premier League status.
Eventually, despite some crushing defeats and a host of doubts early on in the campaign, Villa evolved into one of the most eye-catching sides in the country. Lambert marshaled his young stars with patience and assurance, and eventually they repaid him. In the end, Villa finished comfortably clear of the relegation zone.
The crown jewel of this new-look Villa outfit is the aforementioned Benteke, a player brought in by Lambert for £7 million last summer. His haul of 23 goals represented an enormous contribution to the club’s survival efforts, cementing Benteke’s reputation as one of Europe’s brightest prospects in the process.
But Villa look set to start next season without their star-man, with the former Genk player having made his intentions to leave the Midlands abundantly clear.
Benteke’s request is understandable, and his head has obviously been turned following persistent links with some of English footballs more illustrious names. But the Belgian forward should think twice before walking out the Villa Park door. Especially after just a solitary season in the Premier League.
You might argue that Benteke “owes” Villa and Lambert after taking a punt on him. But that is a somewhat romanticized notion, for in reality, Benteke holds no allegiance to the Midlands outfit. Does he really “owe” them anything after his goals dragged them clear of relegation? Probably not.
Whilst Villa would obviously benefit from another season with Benteke leading their attack, the Belgian would see his game develop further should he remain there.
After some bleak times in recent years, Villa are a club that are starting to do things the right way under Lambert. They have grown into a system based on high-octane, dynamic brand of football which is tailor-made for Benteke’s style of play.
The team are vertical in their passing, but by no means overly direct and this philosophy has enabled Benteke to flourish. One of the developing facets of Villa’s attacking play under Lambert has been getting the ball into Benteke early, allowing him to pin down defenders and dominating them with his robust style. The results, demonstrated by his goal return, have been astounding.
Ultimately, everything good about Villa’s attacking play last season was channeled through the Belgian. The team is set-up to get the maximum from his strengths and if he moves on, there may not necessarily be the same focus on him.
Staying at Villa, where he would have another season as the focal point of a progressive team, would be much more beneficial to him maturing as a player. Next season is going to be a crucial period in Benteke’s development, the season after a major breakthrough always is. Another year playing in a familiar set-up would be much more favorable than a potential spell in and out of a new side.
After all, we have seen players struggle after a breakthrough and a big money move. Andy Carroll, a player not too stylistically dissimilar to Benteke, is perhaps the most recent and high profile example of this.
Could Benteke suffer a similar fate if he jumps ship? It’s certainly not out of the question.
Granted, careers in football are short, and there are those who would subsequently argue for seizing bigger and better opportunities as soon as they arise. But the Belgian powerhouse is still in the infancy of his career, and at 22 years old, has much to learn about being a centre-forward in the Premier League.
Making another move at such a young age, where he will have to adapt to a new city, a new system and a new set of teammates, could initially stint his development. Especially if his first team opportunities are hindered by the increased competition he will naturally face.
And taking a glance even further down the line, in a season preceding a World Cup, a move may be as potentially damaging as it is enhancing for Benteke’s international chances. Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas are all vying for a starting spot in Belgian’s front line and with that kind of company, Benteke will have to replicate his form from the last campaign to hold down a starting berth.
It might not be the most glamorous course of action, but Villa Park – for the time being – remains the most suitable place for Benteke to hone his skills. At least for one more season. Unfortunately, unless Villa play hardball, or the forward has a dramatic change of heart, this looks an unlikely outcome.
A player of his quality will obviously move on eventually, unfortunately that’s the ruthless nature of the modern game. But if he sticks it out at Villa and trusts in the man who has already helped him develop so quickly, then he has all the attributes to become one of the best strikers around.