Karim Benzema won the Ballon d’Or in 2022 after more than a decade living in the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo. His journey at Real Madrid, from back-up act to superstar has come to an end following a transfer to Saudi Arabian club Al-Ittihad.
We look back at his career trajectory through the data.
It was the summer of 2009. The Black Eyed Peas were the hottest band on the planet, FarmVille was a thing and Real Madrid were in the process of a summer recruitment drive that would change the club’s future that continues to affect Spanish and European football 13 years later.
They spent over €200 million on signings during those frantic summer months in what was one of the most incredible transfer windows in the history of football. That summer and Florentino’s flurry in the transfer market would come to shape the sport for a decade and define an era in La Liga and European football.
They signed Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United, a sport-changing signing that would shape the way we viewed La Liga and his rivalry with Lionel Messi — a debate that still rumbles on. They also signed Xabi Alonso, the classiest of midfielders who would help them win seven trophies over the next five years including a Champions League and league title.
They also signed Kaká from A.C Milan, a player thought to be the best of the lot.
Jorge Valdano tells the story of how he brought the young Brazilian to the attention of Florentino Pérez earlier in his career and said they could sign him for €12 million.
“He’ll be worth €60 million one day,” Valdano told the Real Madrid president. “We’ll buy him when he’s worth €60 million then” came Florentino’s response. This was back when Real Madrid had the funds to pay the premium for letting other teams turn potential into something more tangible before they swooped.
Real Madrid bought him for €60 million. A statement signing. A statement summer.
They also signed a promising 21-year-old striker from Lyon for €35 million named Karim Benzema. Manchester United were interested too, but when Alex Ferguson heard the sum Real Madrid were willing to pay, he backed off. Florentino Perez had gone so far as to visit Benzema at his parents house in Bron, the suburbs of Lyon, convincing the young striker that he belonged at Real Madrid.
He had arrived after scoring 37 goals for Lyon in two seasons but Benzema was bought as a work in progress. Raul was still at the club and Gonzalo Higuaín was coming off a season when he scored 22 goals in La Liga.
For a number of years after that signing, it seemed like Benzema would be seen as an adjunct to the main show, a support act to the headliner. He would take his place in history as the great facilitator.
Players who just facilitate don’t win Ballon d’Or awards. Benzema said farewell to Real Madrid after signing with Al-Ittihad in Saudi Arabia and far from being talked about as a support act, the debates are kicking off as to whether he is the best striker to ever wore the Real Madrid jersey. Better than Ronaldo? Better than Raúl? When you look at their oeuvres, Benzema has been several things under a number of managers and emerged in 2021-22 as the hero of yet another successful Champions League campaign. Zinedine Zidane always said that winning La Liga was harder than winning the Champions League. Benzema’s Madrid won it twice in four years since Ronaldo left. During Ronaldo’s time, they only managed to win it twice in nine attempts.
The France international’s career trajectory is a story that needs context. His career has been considered enigmatic and often underrated but it’s a career of necessity — whatever Real Madrid needed, he provided. He played the long game and had his best career at 33, winning the Ballon d’Or and becoming the talisman for the biggest club in the world.
Benzema: The Promise
Benzema climbed the ranks at Lyon having joined the club before he was even a teenager.
The year before he would break out at Lyon, they sold Florent Malouda to Chelsea and Sylvain Wiltord to Rennes. A left-winger and a secondary striker both gone and needing to be replaced. Maybe it was excellent planning on the part of Lyon or just a coincidence that there was a teenager made to play the role the departing pair had vacated.
“Do not laugh, I’m here to take your place,” 17-year-old Benzema said to his team-mates as they heckled him during the traditional speech a player makes upon joining the first team.
Across those two seasons (2007-08 and 2008-09), Benzema had the same number of league goal involvements (46) as Thierry Henry – who’d just spent his first two seasons at Barcelona – and Real Madrid legend Raúl.
The leading player for goal involvements across those two seasons in the top five European leagues was Cristiano Ronaldo (61), who was soon to become Benzema’s team-mate for the next decade. Ronaldo (49) was also the top scoring player in those two campaigns.
The Frenchman had scored one more league goal (37) than Raul over those two seasons, though, and came to eventually take the Spanish legend’s place.
Social media was but a seed taking root back in the late 2000s but the hype around Benzema if the phenomenon happened now would be akin to Kylian Mbappé or Erling Haaland.
Benzema: The Back-Up
Gonzalo Higuaín had started 31 games the year before Benzema arrived and scored 22 goals in La Liga. When Benzema was signed, he ate into those minutes (2,642 vs 2,351) but the rest worked for Higuaín. He ended up scoring 27 in the league the first time they played on the same team.
It was apparent that Higuaín and Ronaldo were the headliners in Real Madrid’s new team. They scored 29 and 33 goals respectively while Benzema scored just nine. They would go on to score 109 goals that season under Manuel Pellegrini. Los Blancos were knocked out of the Champions League by Lyon, ironically enough. They also lost to Alcorcón in the Copa del Rey, one of the most humiliating defeats in the club’s history – mention the term ‘Alcorcónazo’ to a Real Madrid fan and you will understand what a look of disgust and shame looks like.
His first season was a disappointment in goalscoring terms and minutes played. The reality was that he hardly featured – just under 15 full 90-minute games worth of minutes on the pitch – but change was coming fast at the club.
The connection with Ronaldo just wasn’t there. Of the 211 shots the Portuguese took that season, Benzema only assisted him with eight. Kaká and Higuaín combined to created 38 shots for their new team-mates — 19 each.
It would take some time for the French striker to adjust to playing a secondary role but the rapport he built up with Ronaldo became a thing of legend.
Benzema: The Second Season and Beyond
Benzema had seen his league minutes sliced in half during his first season in Spain. After playing 2,767 minutes with Lyon in 2008, he only played 1,305 in 2009 with Real Madrid. That number shot back up to 2,251 in his second season in the Spanish capital.
It was helped by Higuain’s back injury that kept him out for four months and Raúl’s departure for the Bundesliga at the age of 32. Benzema showed flashes of his creative side. Having created just two assists during his final season with Lyon, that number climbed from three and then to five, seven and 11 during his first four years at Madrid. It stayed consistently around that number until Ronaldo left the club and Benzema became the primary one being created for.
It was only after Higuain and Raul left that we saw a footballing relationship blossom between Ronaldo and Benzema that would devastate defences around Europe for the next half a decade. Back then Ronaldo had the pace and power to start his runs from wide or deeper and tear into the box, leaving Benzema free to work his magic in and around him. A great example of this is from 2016 against Getafe when Ronaldo attracts the attention of Getafe’s entire defence as Benzema peels off, arriving in from the left.
Benzema often started as the number nine but was the trailing striker. “I am a 10 in a nine’s body,” he had said. His movement, possibly his best attribute, proved that comment to be true. Jose Mourinho’s counter-attacking style helped with Madrid bursting forward in waves and catching opposing defences in disarray.
As the two players got older, the attack became more stagnant. Ronaldo needed to start in the penalty area and he couldn’t beat men out wide either. There wasn’t as much movement or as many counters and it was forcing Benzema to become increasingly creative with his movement. Instead of two moving parts, it was just one and Benzema wasn’t getting younger either.
During this time, we also saw Benzema’s own take-on numbers drop. From a high of 3.2 in 2010, they have almost halved since then. Once a wildly dynamic, chance-creating attacker, with Ronaldo gone, it was time for Benzema to become the star of the show.
The Benzema Show
Julen Lopetegui’s father bemoaned that they “have taken 50 goals away from my son” when they brought him in as coach and then sold the Portuguese forward to Juventus. If he was being precise, he would have said they took “44 goals away and an xG of 23.6,” but who’s really counting.
What isn’t up for debate is that Cristiano Ronaldo left a massive hole in Real Madrid’s team. Ronaldo took 178 shots in the La Liga season before he left and was averaging a league-high seven per 90 minutes in that season. Someone had to shoulder the load.
In that first season without Ronaldo, Benzema saw both his overall touches increase and his touches in the opposition box returned to the kind of volume he saw in his Lyon days. It peaked at 251 two years after Ronaldo left and stayed consistent since then.
That first full season without Ronaldo was full of turmoil. Lopetegui was sacked in October after 14 games in charge and Santiago Solari was his replacement. The changes affected Benzema but there were glimpses of the player he would become during that season. His non-penalty shots inside the box skyrocketed from 54 to 87.
At the end of that season, Zidane was brought back in for a second stint in charge. Benzema’s number would take another jump and he found himself on the path to the Ballon d’Or.
Benzema: The Legend
Benzema’s game has changed over the years. It has changed as a function of time and his hierarchy in the team. A player who used to dribble more, he has earned the right to wait in the penalty area and shoot on sight. Sometimes that wasn’t easy. Eden Hazard, the supposed heir to Ronaldo and someone who Benzema could riff with failed to live up to expectations. Benzema was creeping towards his mid-30s and it was unclear whether Vinícius or Rodrygo would come good in time for them to create a special bond with the French striker. Did Benezma have the legs left to carry the attacking torch for Real Madrid as they waited for their two Brazilian starlets to mature? Did he even want to wait around having already won every trophy he could with the club?
Benzema returned to his role as the facilitator in recent seasons as he helped Vinícius and Rodrygo blossom into the very stars who will now have to fill the gap left by their former teammate. The two Brazilians have developed and can now be considered world class in their own right. First, Vinícius Júnior exploded on the wing with his thrilling samba-infused style. He stretched the pitch both vertically and horizontally allowing Benzema to be as economical with his movement as possible and as lethal with his touches as ever.
It finally clicked for Vinícius last year. The three years before last season, the Brazilian only scored eight times and delivered four assists in La Liga, and frustration was starting to mount, doubts creeping in. Last season he scored 17 goals and provided 10 assists. He also scored the winner in the UEFA Champions League final against Premier League side Liverpool, containing talents such as Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane (both kept out by a ridiculous display from goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois) as Real Madrid did the double.
This season, Rodrygo finished the season with 18 goals in all competitions and 10 assists.
Last season under Carlo Ancelotti (2021-22), Benzema finished the finest goalscoring campaign of his career with 27 goals in La Liga – 44 in all competitions – and tied his highest assist number in league competition too with 12, as a 34-year-old. Four of Benzema’s top five campaigns in terms of goal involvements have come without Ronaldo and the season he won the Ballon d’Or, he took 104 shots inside the box, the highest total of his career. This season, his final in a Real Madrid shirt, he scored 31 in all competitions, but they finished the season with no trophies.
After 14 seasons at the Bernabeu, with nothing left to prove, Benzema received a lucrative offer from Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad and he decided it was time to leave.
He leaves Real Madrid with 354 goals and 142 assists (496 goal involvements). During his stay in Madrid, he also won five Champions Leagues, four La Liga titles and three Copa del Rey trophies. He leaves the club as the Ballon d’Or winner too.
From a number 10 in a nine’s body to a pure number nine who can also drop and facilitate play when necessary. He stuck around long enough to finally become the alpha in a room full of true superstars.
First, it was Raúl and then Higuaín and eventually Ronaldo who he said goodbye to.
During that time he slowly crept up Real Madrid’s all-time goalscoring list ahead of truly legendary figures such as Raúl, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás and Paco Gento. He also started to appear more frequently in conversations about Real Madrid’s all-time greats until recently when he became the starting point in these debates because he did more than just score goals. He also leaves Spain as the player with the most assists in Real Madrid history.
The Ballon d’Or award came during the twilight of a glittering career. Benzema arrived in Madrid as an inconspicuous young striker from Bron in France. He leaves as one of the greatest players to ever play for the club.
To watch Karim Benzema in full flight was to watch a master at his craft. A player in total control of the spaces around him and the ball at his feet.