Karim Benzema: The Total Footballer Who Eschews His Number Nine Status
Karim Benzema has scored 22 goals and provided 11 assists in La Liga this season, leading all players in both categories. He is two goals shy of equalling his most in a season in La Liga, and has already matched his best for assists, with 10 games of the campaign to go.
Should Benzema go on to score more goals and make more assists than any other player in the competition this term, he would be only the second individual to do so since the 2006-07 campaign (as far back as data is available), after – you guessed it – Lionel Messi, in 2019-20.
By those measures, we can be pretty sure in saying Benzema is having a terrific season; very possibly, the best one of his career. Would the Frenchman himself agree though?
If he does, it’s probably not through the lens of the goal rankings at the back of the city’s sports papers. Although he’s existed within the Real Madrid bubble for over a decade – one of football’s most turbulent, high-stakes settings – the 34-year-old is a reserved character, who avoids the daily churn of all that surrounds the game. When he does speak, his views on football mirror that of his cerebral playing style.
“We don’t consume football like we used to,” Benzema told France Football earlier this year. “We don’t stay in front of a game for ninety minutes anymore. With social media you can follow everything on your phone, you see the goals… We no longer bother to look at what a player is doing on the pitch, only who has scored. The next day, we consider the latter to be the most important. It’s happened to me before. I don’t play well, I score and I’m seen as the best.”
Maybe it’s the result of playing in the pressure cooker of the Bernabéu for over a decade. Or perhaps, it’s merely the gathered reflections of a 34-year-old entering the autumn of his career, having spent so long at the top. Whatever the reason, it gives us a sharp insight into how Benzema views the game. And if we’re to hold his 2021-22 season up to the mirror of his own mind, the Frenchman is as good as he has ever been.
Benzema wears the number nine shirt, and he scores like a number nine. Only Robert Lewandowski (43) has scored more goals than him (32) across all competitions in European football this season, while 32 is already his most in a single season for Real Madrid. Just don’t call him a number nine.
Despite his elevated numbers, the Lyon native maintains that he is the same player he has always been: a striker in name, but a footballer by nature. He can be a killer in the penalty area or an auxiliary central midfielder, when required. If anything has changed in recent years, beyond his age, it is his surrounding environment since the breakup of the ‘BBC’ – the attacking trio of Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Benzema himself – in 2018.
With such emphasis formerly placed on the three, given the investments made, the pursuit of trophies and the partial continuation of the Gálactico model, Real Madrid were bound to their hat-trick of stars whenever they were all fit. As we’ve seen in recent times, though, making a star-studded trio of attackers work isn’t always easy, and Benzema functioned more in service of Ronaldo than as a parallel – even when he played as the striker and the Portuguese from the left.
The Frenchman was the brains of the operation – making movements to clear space, helping with construction of play and generally trying to aid their attacking fluidity – while Ronaldo was the finisher and Bale was the ‘rocket’, as Benzema once described. The fact that Real Madrid won an astonishing four Champions League trophies but only one league title during the ‘BBC’ era was perhaps indicative of its effect, in that they burned brightly but did so fleetingly. They were built for the big stage, rather than the weekly grind.
Although Benzema now sits atop of the club’s hierarchy – with a stack of honours and over 300 goals for the club – the 2022 version of Real Madrid’s version is more organic and less Gálactico-powered. The Frenchman leads by example, rather than by reputation. And while constructing perhaps the finest season of his career individually, Benzema’s associative nature has helped develop a football ecosystem closer to his own ideals.
The 34-year-old is connected to the team’s play as much as ever in 2021-22, and the results have been spectacular – individually and collectively. Benzema is averaging 53 touches and receiving 40 passes per 90 in La Liga this season, which are both his highest averages in a single campaign for Real Madrid. Compare that with 2013-14 – the first season of the ‘BBC’ era – where he averaged 38 touches and received 26 passes per 90.
In today’s version of Real Madrid, Benzema figures as their attacking nucleus. The combination of his status within the squad and Carlo Ancelotti’s notorious flexibility with his most talented players has brought forth a situation where Benzema is free to interpret the game in the way he sees fit. “I don’t play like a number nine who stays in the box, but I know how to do it,” he told France Football in January. “I don’t play like a number nine who just drops deep, but I know how to do it. I know how to do everything.”
In 2021-22, few can rival Benzema when it comes to prolific scoring, combined with an unselfish, creative edge. Among strikers with 900 minutes played within the big five European leagues this season, only Lionel Messi and Dimitri Payet have been more active creators than Benzema, when combining both chances and secondary chances created from open play. The latter is a way of capturing the pass to the player who creates the chance, rather than just crediting the final delivery.
Of course, the Ligue 1 pair have been nowhere near as influential as goalscorers. They have 11 goals between them in a combined 3,513 minutes. Benzema has scored 22 in just over 2,000 minutes himself.
To compare with the only player who has outscored Benzema this season – Robert Lewandowski – the Pole ranks 28th in this metric among strikers. Of the 30 goals he has been directly involved in this season, only one of them was an assist. Indeed, in the eternal debate of who Europe’s best number nine is, the number nines we seek to compare are often very different. Benzema, especially, blurs the lines of how we should appraise a role which is no longer just about scoring goals.
In terms of his association play, the big winner this season has been Real Madrid. On an individual level at the club, however, it has been Vinícius Júnior. The Brazilian has been one half of the defining partnership in the 2022 title race, dovetailing with Benzema in a way that is almost sure to rip back the trophy from Atlético Madrid come May.
The two have combined for more goals than any other duo in the big five European leagues this season (8), while only Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller (28) have combined to create more chances than the Real Madrid men (27). The breakdown for the Bayern Munich pair has been more lop-sided, however, with Müller creating the chance for 23 of the 28 between he and Lewandowski. Vinícius Júnior has set up Benzema 15 times, with the Frenchman returning the favour on 12 occasions.
Ironically, it was less than 18 months ago that Benzema was caught on camera at half time of a Champions League game, urging Ferland Mendy not to pass to Vinícius Júnior. The crux of the issue was that the Brazilian was veering off-script too often, with Benzema accusing him of “doing what he wants” on the pitch. It was a dispute that was quickly settled, and rather being an act of single-mindedness from Benzema, was more rooted in his commitment to collaborative play. The Frenchman is unyielding in his stance of making the decisions that benefit the team, rather than the individual.
Given Vinícius Júnior’s galactic leap between this season and last, in terms of his impact and decision-making, Benzema’s responsibility to some degree can’t be denied. There is a valid case to be made that they have been the two best players in La Liga in 2021-22, and yet their individual brilliance has been propelled by their synchronicity.
With a few months of the season remaining, there is still time for the duo and Real Madrid to pair their inevitable title win with European honours. What looks set to be a good season can still become a great one. However it ends though – and even if they do go on to scoop another Champions League – Real Madrid look to be heading for a Galáctico shopping spree in the summer.
If they’re successful in their search for a megastar, whether it’s Kylian Mbappé, Erling Haaland or even both, the dynamics in the Spanish capital will shift once more. At 34 years of age, Benzema will be aware that Real Madrid have to construct a plan for their future without him, and that it could begin as soon as this summer. It is his malleability as a footballer that will lessen their fears in doing so.
Benzema has worn many hats in his 13 seasons at Real Madrid: scorer, creator, connector. Whatever they happen to need from him in his 14th, his game will happily grant.
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