European Football

It’s Time to Start Appreciating Karim Benzema

Featured Image by WONJONGSUNG from Pixabay

The Frenchman is now getting his time in the spotlight, time that has been due for a while now…

What if I told you there was a player out there who is among the best in his position of his generation and we are not appreciating him nearly enough? A player who came out of one of the best academies in Europe, won several league titles and a league player of the year award with his boyhood club before earning a big money move to European giants Real Madrid. At Real Madrid, he won three league titles and four Champions Leagues, adding to his already crowded honors list. He is currently Real Madrid’s fifth highest ever goalscorer with 249, their top assister with 133, and one of only four players to score 20-plus goals in eight or more seasons for Los Blancos, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Alfredo Di Stéfano, and Raúl. He amassed those 249 goals and 133 assists in a little over 500 games, with a goals-to-game ratio of around .50, seemingly the golden standard of being a world-class forward. He has just wrapped up a second consecutive season of being his team’s arguably best and most important player, and he has helped Real Madrid to their first league title in the post-Ronaldo era.

And this player is being underrated seemingly to a criminal degree.

Yes, this is not a guessing game. You read the title, so you know I am referring to current Real Madrid and ex-Lyon striker Karim Benzema. You probably have your own opinions on Benzema, quite a few people do, but hear me out first.

Benzema has begun to earn his deserved praise this season. He was arguably Real Madrid’s most important player and easily their most important attacking player, scoring 27 goals and adding 11 assists in all competitions. With Ronaldo gone, Bale permanently stuck on the bench, and Hazard struggling to fully adapt to life in the Spanish capital, Benzema has been the main guy for Zidane going forward. In a team that does not score too many goals, at least compared to previous Real Madrid teams, Benzema is often the irreplaceable part of their attack. Los Blancos only scored 70 league goals this season, so Benzema’s 21 league goals and eight league assists by himself accounted for a little more than 40% of his team’s scoring output in the league. You could very well make the claim that Benzema had the best season of any player in LaLiga not named Lionel Messi, and that would not be an outlandish argument to make. Real Madrid’s 2018/19 campaign was one to forget, but Benzema was also near this level that season as well, bringing in 30 goals and 11 assists in all competitions and being responsible for around a third of Real Madrid’s league goals that season. He was seemingly their sole shining light from a dreadful year.

This praise has come in the last two years, but it is long overdue. Benzema is obviously shining now, and you can argue he is simply just stepping up in Ronaldo’s absence, but he has been an important player in previous years as well. He just never got the credit he deserved.

Benzema was an unbelievable player for Lyon. I would argue he remains the most talented player to emerge from their now-world famous academy. He earned his big-money move to Real Madrid, where, yes, he did initially struggle. He played second fiddle to Gonzalo Higuaín, and he had issues with his fitness. The first two seasons under José Mourinho were very tough, but he fought through and earned his place in the team. Mourinho himself gave all credit to Benzema for transforming himself as a player to fit into the team. Succeeding in the famed white shirt is quite difficult, even for talented players. Just look at Hazard’s struggles this season. There is a significant list of talented footballers who failed to adapt to life in Madrid and failed to live up to the weight and expectation that wearing that white shirt brings, so Benzema’s ability to overcome initial struggles to have the level of longevity and greatness that he has had is something that is not commended enough.

But let us move on past those first few years. Since then, Real Madrid added Gareth Bale to their strike force, forming the notorious “BBC” triad up front. They were one of the best attacking units in Europe, scoring and winning at a historic level. Despite this, however, Benzema was still the target of criticism. He seemed to constantly be the butt of the joke, with many viewing him as the ugly duckling of the trio. He seemed to be viewed as the less shiny and flashy player surrounded by two superstars. To be fair, it is hard to truly shine when an all-time great like Ronaldo did ridiculous things on a weekly basis, but the conversation seemed to be more than that. The discussions seemed to center around how good Real Madrid would be when they finally sold Benzema and replaced him with a “better” player. I will forever stand by the argument that not only would replacing Benzema not have made Real Madrid better, it would, in fact, have made them worse.

I am not going to roll out the generic “Benzema sacrificed for Ronaldo” line, as I do not feel it is nuanced enough to describe Benzema as a player and what made him so important for those Real Madrid teams. Benzema is a very well-rounded forward, able to use pace to get in behind defenses and use strength to hold the ball up and act as a target man. Possibly his best strength lies in his positional sense and passing ability, which saw him mostly deployed as a center forward or “false nine”. In this role, he is able to do everything I said above, but also be tasked with dropping into space between the lines to receive the ball and pass, as well as make movements and runs that move around and draw the attention of the defenders, often opening up space for his teammates to occupy or run into. It is similar to the role that Roberto Firmino plays for this current Liverpool team. Firmino has the ability to drop into space or play as a traditional number nine, and his ability to make dummy runs and occupy the center backs opens up the space for Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah to get into good goalscoring positions and make dangerous attacking runs. This similar idea is applied here. This role, and his traits that perfectly fit the role, has allowed Benzema to turn provider on several occasions, often being Real Madrid’s leading assister and why he has so many career assists for a striker, and to make the runs or take up the positions that opens up space for Ronaldo and Bale to attack. This, many times, happened between him and Ronaldo, where he was able to hold the ball up slightly or make a dummy run toward the left that moved the center back or fullback wider, opening up space for Ronaldo to cut inside. He also had the ability to make runs wide and make plays from a wide area, which allowed Ronaldo to swap places with him and move into the 18-yard box, able to take advantage of his physical skills to score off of crosses or other center forward-like goals. This is where the “sacrificing for Ronaldo” narrative comes from, but it really does not give Benzema enough credit. Simply saying he is sacrificing implies it is something any striker could do instead of it being a use of Benzema’s skill set and high football intelligence that actively makes those Real Madrid teams better. His understanding of space and ability to make the runs or play the passes that gets his teammates in great goalscoring positions is a very unique skill that very few forwards possess at this level, and his ability to combine that with a very good end product is what makes him such an incredible player. He has done significant work as a player to bind that attack together and make them the cohesive unit that they were at their peak. Had Real Madrid decided to sell him, those traits would be gone, and they would not have been as fluid of an attacking unit. There are very few players that Real Madrid could have brought in to truly replace Benzema in that team, as there are not many that bring the specific skills and traits that allowed him to glue that attack together. It is Benzema’s well-roundedness as a forward that makes him such an elite player and so important to that team.

Also, let’s not pretend that he was simply there to run around and allow Ronaldo to score. He has had some statistically impactful seasons in that “BBC” trio. Bar two seasons, he has scored 20-plus goals in all competitions as part of that front three, as well as adding a minimum of five assists onto that total. He reached double digit assists in the league three times and never had less than eight assists in all competitions since Bale’s arrival, amassing 16 and 15 in all competitions in Bale’s first two seasons in Madrid. People talk about his five league goals in 2017/18, which seemingly indicates a poor season for a striker, but people do not talk about that he had double digit assists, being Real Madrid’s leading provider that season, and he had five more Champions League goals in nine games on the way to Los Blancos being crowned European Champions again. His worst season as a member of the “BBC” was still a fairly good season. And let’s not forget those milestones I mentioned at the beginning of the piece. He is Real Madrid’s fifth-highest ever goalscorer, leading assister, and one of only four Madridista players to have at least eight 20-plus goal seasons in the famous white shirt. He seemingly remained the butt of the joke until recently despite constantly and continuing to be one of Real Madrid’s most important players in every sense.

Now, let’s talk about big moments. Every great player has big moments they are remembered for, right? When talking about Benzema’s big moments, one definitely springs to mind for everyone: his famous elastico-assist against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League in 2017. However, many of his other big moments seem to be ignored. People laugh about his fortunate goal in the Champions League Final against Liverpool in 2018, but many forget it was his two goals against Bayern Munich in the semifinal that got them into the final. He scored two crucial goals against Valencia in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey in 2013. He scored goals in Madrid Derbies and in El Clasicos, including a notable equalizer in a 2-1 Real Madrid win over Barcelona in 2014 that came very close to being a title-deciding match. This is also ignoring him scoring possibly the goal of the season, his volley against Valencia, and assist of the season, his back heel pass against Espanyol, as part of his scintillating form at the end of this past season. Yes, he is not Cristiano Ronaldo, no one on planet Earth is. However, Benzema has had his fair share of incredible moments in a Real Madrid shirt, moments that deserve recognition for a near-legendary Madridista.

In another sense, maybe this is where some of the criticism stems from. Yes, he has had fantastic moments and scored important goals, but he has had very few spectacular, “wow” moments in his career outside of that elastico-assist. When he was playing alongside Ronaldo and Bale, who scored brilliant highlight-reel goals on a near-regular basis during their peaks in Madrid, he often looked like a member of the supporting cast instead of one of the main protagonists. Football media also latched onto the extraordinary play of other forwards, who shined brighter than Benzema at times. He often looks ordinary, while Bale and Ronaldo, Falcao and Lewandowski, Mbappé and Griezmann, looked extraordinary. His “ordinary”, and it is still quite unfair to him to call him ordinary, has not made him a bad player, however, but it unfortunately cast him in the shadow of the extraordinary moments of his teammates or others who caught the eye of the football world. It is that “ordinary”, however, that is what made, and still makes, Benzema so important for Real Madrid, and his consistency in that regard has allowed him to outlast many of the shiny toys Real Madrid brought in to star in their attack. Real Madrid, as a club, lack patience and know how rich they are, having the ability to snap up the best and brightest talent from all corners of the globe. Benzema was one of those players, but he arrived with little fanfare compared to Ronaldo and Kaká, who arrived at the same time. Since Benzema moved to Madrid, they have also brought in the likes of James Rodríguez, Isco, Álvaro Morata, and Luka Jović, meant to be the new bright star to go into their forward line and take it to the next level. While they had their bright moments, they all faded in time, while Benzema still remains. New York Times football correspondent Rory Smith called Benzema the “Low-Wattage Galactico”, and I cannot think of a better way to describe this idea. His game was never the flashiest or the most ridiculous or insane, but Benzema was, and still is, a world-class forward who was and is an integral part of the Real Madrid team. His light just so happened to be a little bit dimmer than some of the players that he played alongside, but it did not make him any less integral to the team.

I have shown you one of the best strikers of a generation. He is probably the most complete and well-rounded striker of his generation. He has won basically everything there is to win in football, he holds high accolades at arguably the biggest club in the world, and, when you get right down to it, he is an incredibly impressive and productive player statistically and has the skill set needed to bring a team together on the pitch. Other players rightly get praised for their ability to do exactly what he has been ignored for doing for nearly half a decade, and he is often criticized for not producing at a high level when, if you look at the statistics, he actually has been doing for basically his whole career. I have laid the case out in front of you; we have a player currently playing at a world-class level right now who is not being given nearly enough credit. He has done everything throughout his career to earn the title of “world class”, and his resumé and accolades include almost everything a footballer can win. As I said in the beginning:

It is time to start appreciating Karim Benzema, and we need to appreciate him for whatever time is left in his career. He more than deserves it.

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