Reports suggest that Karim Benzema might be looking to call time on his short career in Saudi Arabia with Al-Ittihad. Despite being 36 years old, he’d be a perfect January transfer for a Premier League club – we explain why.
There’s no smoke without fire, and there’s been plenty of it billowing from the Karim Benzema rumour mill in the last few weeks, with the French striker reportedly unhappy at Al-Ittihad and looking for a move. After apparently reporting back for training 17 days later than expected, speculation is rife that the veteran striker might finally be heading to the Premier League in the January transfer window.
Plenty seem to be disregarding the impact Benzema could have at a Premier League club, firstly due to his age (he turned 36 last month) and secondly because of a perceived lack of ‘top’ competitive action during his seven months in Saudi Arabia. But those doubters have too quickly forgotten the Frenchman’s qualities.
Although it paled in comparison to his career-high 44 competitive goals for Real Madrid across 2021-22 as they won La Liga and the UEFA Champions League (helping him take the 2022 Ballon D’or), 2022-23 saw Benzema score 31 times for the Spanish giants – his second-best tally in a single season at the club.
That 31-goal haul was only bettered by four players in the top five European leagues – Erling Haaland (52), Kylian Mbappé (41), Robert Lewandowski (33) and Harry Kane (32) – while Benzema scored one more than Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (30). Perhaps because of Madrid’s collective failure to win a single trophy last season, Benzema’s personal goalscoring feats were somewhat glossed over.
After 14 seasons at the Santiago Bernabéu and with nothing left to prove, Benzema received a lucrative offer from Al-Ittihad and he decided it was time to leave. He departed Real Madrid with 354 goals and 142 assists (a total of 496 goal involvements), not to mention five Champions League crowns, four La Liga titles and three Copa del Rey successes.
As expected from a player of the Benzema’s quality, he took little time to find form in the Saudi Pro League. With 14 goal involvements in 15 league appearances (nine goals, five assists), he’s topped the Al-Ittihad rankings, but just like at Real Madrid the season before, his personal performance has arguably been overshadowed by his team’s shortcomings.
As last season’s SPL champions, Al-Ittihad were expected to be frontrunners again in 2023-24. That’s been far from the case, as they sit in seventh place with just over half (28) the points tally of leaders and rivals Al-Hilal (53). They’ve been a huge disappointment, all things considered.
True, Benzema’s output has been overshadowed by the feats of Cristiano Ronaldo (not for the first time) as the Portugal great has produced 20 goals and nine more assists to lead the league rankings, but unlike the French striker, Ronaldo’s had time to acclimatise to Saudi football and the culture in general.
With respect to his teammates at Al-Ittihad, Benzema’s had to deal with a drop in the level of quality that he’s used to working alongside since moving from Spain to Asia. One of Benzema’s greatest strengths is his ability to link play and take up the role of facilitator to help younger, quicker players blossom. We saw this in his final seasons at Madrid, using his nous to aid Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo develop into top-class forwards.
In his final season at Real, among all La Liga players to play 3,000+ minutes in all competitions, only Toni Kroos (7.2) was involved in more open-play sequences that ended in a shot on a per-90-minute basis than Benzema (7.0). And just under half of the Frenchman’s involvements came in the build-up or chance creation of shots (3.3), rather than taking the shot itself (3.7).
But which clubs might be able to offer him a route back to Europe?
Outside of the Premier League, Benzema’s first club, Lyon, have reportedly tried to tempt their former star back to France.
Benzema scored 66 goals in five professional seasons at his hometown club and Lyon certainly need a boost to fight off the threat of Ligue 1 relegation this season. With 16 points from their 18 league games, they are third from bottom and occupy the Ligue 1 relegation play-off spot.
However much of a fairytale move that would be, it feels less likely than a switch to one of the three Premier League clubs supposedly interested in a loan deal for the striker.
Arguably the most exciting prospect for Benzema this month would be joining Arsenal, where his abilities could be perfect for elevating Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli to new levels, while there’s little doubt that despite his advancing years, he’d be an upgrade on Gabriel Jesus. He’d bring regular goals, for a start.
Jesus has scored just seven times in 1,366 minutes in all competitions this season – an average of one every 195 minutes, which is over two whole matches per goal. With the Premier League title race so tight this season, Benzema could make the difference for Mikel Arteta.
Chelsea have the youngest Premier League side on average this season (24 years, 297 days), so adding some experience could help them to recover in the second half of the season and secure much-needed European qualification. Nicolas Jackson’s had a decent – if slightly erratic – start to life at Stamford Bridge with seven Premier League goals, but his wayward finishing has cost Chelsea at times in 2023-24. He’s underperformed his expected goals (xG) total by 3.6, but Benzema could help the Senegalese forward refine his game.
Other than Jackson, Chelsea’s only other recognised strikers are Christopher Nkunku, who has only just returned from long-term injury, and Armando Broja, who has scored just once in 453 league minutes this season and that only came after Fulham’s Tim Ream kicked the ball onto his foot.
And then there’s Manchester United. They’ve had an awful season in front of goal in 2023-24, with only three teams (Crystal Palace, Burnley and Sheffield United) scoring fewer than their 24 goals. Just four of those have come from Marcus Rashford, while 20-year-old summer signing Rasmus Højlund is still very much a work in progress and has scored just twice in the league. Anthony Martial is hardly worth mentioning as an option for Erik ten Hag such is his propensity to be out injured, with United confirming on Wednesday that he faces another 10 weeks out after surgery, so the signing of Benzema would be a huge improvement on their current roster of centre-forward options.
Signing experienced strikers is a well-trodden path for United as well, and it’s quite often had positive results in the short term. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was 35 when he debuted for the club in the Premier League in October 2016 following his move from Paris Saint-Germain. His 28 goals across all competition in 2016-17 has been bettered on just nine occasions in the Premier League era by Man Utd players. Of course, the return of Ronaldo in 2021-22 was another such example. He was 36 when he rejoined the club and finished the campaign as their top scorer in both the league (18) and all competitions (24), although ultimately the return went sour in the second season. Benzema would presumably be signed on a shorter-term deal that could mean United avoid running into the same issues.
Should Benzema leave Al-Ittihad this month and arrive in the Premier League, a decent half-season in England could even see him break into the top 10 for the niche ‘most goals scored aged 36 or older’ category, while Manchester United (35 goals) currently lead that ranking for Premier League clubs.
A match made in heaven, then?