When Arsenal host Villa this weekend the home fans may well have their eye on an opposition player as well as their own with the Gunners, along with fierce rivals Tottenham, strongly linked with the visitors prized asset.
Christian Benteke has been a revelation in his first season in English football and has shone in a struggling side that without him may have already bitten the dust this season. If the Villa faithful have one thing to thank Paul Lambert for, it is certainly the young Belgian’s arrival, having already picked up a somewhat iconic status at the club.
This week, when asked about the links between the forward and the two North London clubs, teammate Gabby Agbonlahor stated, "He’s gifted in what he can do, so he’s going to be linked with a lot of clubs. I think he’s good enough for even higher than them."
His transfer fee was certainly one that alarmed most fans, with the Midlands outfit, after a drawn out series of negotiations, eventually stumping up around £7m for their man. When asked about the proposition of his star striker leaving the club, whether they were relegated or not, Lambert replied “If someone wanted to buy Christian, they’d better have a few quid in their pocket." In response to the suggestion as to whether or not he had doubled his transfer value the Scot added, "Yes, by miles."
It's clear that the relegation battlers won't let the 22 year old go on the cheap, no matter what level they are playing their football next season, but just how good is Benteke?
While most will point to the youngster's stature as his main point of strength, and Villa have looked to utilise this, Benteke has arguably been one of the most pivotal players to a team in the league this season. His 11 goals (15 in all competitions) and 4 assists account for 44% of the team's overall league tally this season, which is a higher percentage than any other player in the top flight. However, it isn't just his direct contribution to Aston Villa's meagre goal haul that makes him so important.
Few teams focus almost the entirety of their attacking intent through one player, and the Belgian has a key role to play in the build up of moves prior to any attempts he has at goal himself. Of all forwards in the league only 4 have averaged more touches per game (45.6) and considering that all of those (Rooney, Tevez, Berbatov and Suarez) have played in withdrawn roles this season his inclusion in play from the perspective of an out-and-out striker is huge. Indeed, of each Premier League team's most used forward, Benteke is only responsible for a lower proportion of his side's average touches (8%) than Berbatov and Suarez.
Of course there is no getting beyond the Belgium international's 6'3" frame, often literally, but Benteke's willingness to challenge for every ball is highly commendable. He has competed in 50 more aerial duels (330) than any other player in Europe's top 5 leagues and, in turn, has unsurprisingly won more than any other player (192). While Villa often don't get the men around him needed to spark a successful attack, Benteke still brings teammates into play superbly.
He has both attempted (141) and completed (116) the second most lay-offs per game behind Santi Cazorla and also found a teammate with the second most accurate flick-ons in the top flight (67), behind Crouch. One could then suggest that were he to play in a more successful team he would be able to link up attacks with far greater success than he can at Villa, who have only averaged more shots per game (11) than Stoke and Reading.
It seems that most reservations as to whether he could make the step up to the likes of Arsenal and Spurs already regard his team play, and overall passing game. His accuracy in terms of the latter, at 65.3%, is not poor for a player of his position. Indeed it is worth noting that his figure is better than the likes of Crouch, Carroll and even Olivier Giroud, who all represent similar focal points for their side's attacks, though you'll get a different opinion from every Arsenal fan that you ask with regards to the Frenchman's abilities.
Chance creation is another area in which he has excelled expectations this season, which may encourage fans of the Belgian's respective suitors. Benteke has set up 34 chances for teammates from open play, which is enough to rank 5th of all strikers in the league and again behind players who tend to be able to drop and allow others to overlap (Suarez, Lambert, Berbatov and Tevez) - a luxury rarely afforded to the former Genk man this season.
If there is perhaps one key department in which his figures could do with some work it is probably his finishing, though his recent form in that area suggests progress is being made. His 11 league strikes have come from 74 shots, leaving him with a conversion rate of 14.9%. That’s only enough to rank 13th of the 17 players to have reached double figures this season but, significantly it’s some way up on the likes of Giroud (11.7%), Defoe (10.2%) and Adebayor (8.7%).
Few can question the ability that Benteke has, or indeed the impact that he has made at Villa Park, but whether Lambert can keep him in the Midlands will certainly revolve around survival in the Premier League. Quotes from the striker earlier in the season left little doubt as to the side that he dreams of lining up for ahead of this weekend’s fixture, stating “Arsenal are the club I love,” but if Villa can avoid the drop this season, another year as the main man will certainly stand him in good stead for the future.
One thing’s for sure, when the travelling fans sing ‘Don’t you wish your striker was Ben-tek-e?’ come Saturday, they will certainly be wary of the hosts getting their wish in the summer.